Friday, March 30, 2007

Now this is narrow-end...

I promised you narrow-end-of-the-bell-shaped-curve, and I haven't really delivered much of that recently. I am now going to make up for that.

"Fresh Air," the interview program with Terry Gross, recently had dueling positions on the religion/science debate. Roughly, that goes like this: If there's a God-the-creator, why is science finding evidence that the universe has evolved without divine intervention, and if there isn't a God, why is stuff so cool and perfect (in places), thus suggesting a Higher Power at work? Terry interviewed Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion" and "The Selfish Gene," among other things. She then interviewed Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian scientist at the forefront of the Human Genome Project. I believe you can podcast both interviews.

I listened to the Dawkins interview but not to the Collins interview, for two reasons (well, three, really). First, I live with an atheist and former Oxford-educated scientist who, I knew, would enjoy (or at least agree with) Dawkins, an atheist who teaches science at Oxford. Second, I'm allergic to the word evangelical; I developed this allergy as a child and I haven't had shots yet to counteract it. And third, I was working on the computer yesterday when our local NPR station, WVIA, broadcast Terry's interview with Collins. (I call her Terry even though we've never been introduced. My sister and I passed her on a Philadelphia street, though, and I recognized her. In CelebriLand, that's enough to be on a first-name basis.)

And now for some disclosures. When the conversation comes up, I describe myself as "a mystic." I'm not sure what word connotes for anyone else, but what it means to me is that I haven't a clue what's really going on in the universe, that there are massive grey areas we (humans) haven't been able to illuminate let alone analyze and so anything could be at work. Astrology could be valid in some way we don't understand. There could be poltergeists. There could be some experience after death that doesn't rely on our corporeal beings. I don't know -- I'm truly agnostic about all that. I do believe there's magic in the universe, although I can't tell you anything more about what that magic might be or how it might work, and I don't believe I can summon it at will, even if I ask really nicely. I don't belong to, or believe in, any organized religion. I judge people by their actions not their stated beliefs, so an observant [fill in religion here] who behaves well and does good is better than a card-carrying [fill in religion here] who abuses animals, drives aggressively, demeans domestic partners, or is arrogant at work. Oh, and I believe atheism is a religion, or at least a faith. You have to believe there's no god because how can you know for sure?

Dawkins admits that last bit, that the evidence is overwhelming that there isn't a God-the-Creator, and certainly not a God-the-Tinkerer, i.e., someone who might listen to and act on our prayers for relief. But he says that all that means is that there is a very tiny probability that there is a God, not proof that there isn't. I can live with that. After all, I'm all about what we don't know. See, listening to Dawkins -- and I can only assume that Collins, the evangelical Christian, would have spouted even more of this -- I was struck by his focus on how awesome we, humans, were. That seems pretty endemic on both sides of the discussion: either it's how awesome we are as products of evolution capable of doing the things we do (science, technology, etc.), or it's how awesome we are because we're reflections of an omni-God.

I actually go in the other direction, with one exception. I like evolution as an explanation. I generally believe in the Big Bang, although I think it raises more questions than it answers. And I also believe we (humans) are not very evolved, not very special, not very "divine" and probably causing our own destruction down the road. (You can tell I don't have kids. I asked a friend with kids how she dealt with some of the depressing aspects of our current trajectory as a species and she said carefully that she figures her daughter will be able to help solve the problems when she grows up. I think you need to be that optimistic when you have kids. Now that's evolutionary sociobiology!) Most other species get it that they can't crap where they eat and vice versa. We literally don't have that basic fact of survival figured out, which you can know if you think about the e-coli scares involving produce grown in California. Whether its pollution, global warming, nuclear winter, or starving ourselves to death, I rather assume we won't wake up and act collectively in time to save the planet. And, in a purely human way, I don't care because a) the planet will survive long enough to support me, my friends & loved ones, their offspring, and even their offspring's offspring. Oh, sure, I recycle and do little things to be green, or rather green-tinged. But I am aware that mine is a pretty big carbon footprint. I have no excuse, and certainly no justification. If asked, my answer would be, "Hey, I'm human." In my view, humans are selfish, arrogant, presumptuous, and actually pretty stupid. Even the smart ones are stupid.

And that was precisely where I parted company with Dawkins on the subject of religion. He "blames" religion for things including violence and so forth, and seems to say that if we just settled on evolution as an explanation for things and eschewed divine explanations all would be well. I think he's got that backwards. Religion is a product of evolution. We believe in a divine entity, we appeal to a divine entity, we commit both good and bad acts in the name of a divine entity because we've evolved that way. I figure it's all tribal and competitive, another example of natural selection. Animals compete within their species as part of natural selection, and guess what, we do too. We seem hard-wired to define the world of humans in two groups: Us (our tribe, our group, our family, our neighborhood) and Others (everyone who isn't one of us, but particularly those we identify as a threat to Us. We're empathetic with those we identify with, and hostile to Others. Red States vs. Blue States, Christians vs. Muslims, Sunnis vs. Shiites, Jews vs. Arabs. Interestingly, it used to be Rich vs. Poor, only then I heard on the radio that one reason people voted in 2000 for politicians who actively promote the interests of the richest 1% in this country was because of "aspirational voting," meaning middle-class people voted for stuff that they assumed would benefit them when they got rich. Weird.

As humans, we actually can see ourselves in other's lives, or we can't. We can see ourselves in CelebriLand, even though we actually haven't a clue what that would be like. I think that explains reality TV: we're watching people like Us who are now actually Famous and Special, the way we want to be and think we could be and should be. Why else would hundreds of thousands of people audition for American Idol when they objectively can't sing well enough? Meanwhile, we can't see ourselves in the lives of criminals, or even those accused of crimes. Used to be we could. When I was a child in the 1960s enough people had enough experiences of deprivation that they could empathize with someone accused of a crime. Americans supported civil rights back then, including for those in the criminal justice system. Now, "perps" are Others. Lock `em up and throw away the key. And, most important: Protect Us from Them. If you thought the media was accurate, you'd think the ONLY child molesters are Strangers. Statistically, most child molestation is by someone your family knows, and a significant number by members of your family. The hated Other is a member of your Tribe, and when presented with evidence of that, you deny it and hum with your fingers in your ears. It's hard to demonize someone you already know and trust and even love. (Strangely, we don't seem to want to go in the other direction and understand the molester. I did; it's not so bad.)

I believe, therefore, that religion gets a bum rap: it's not the cause of violence and wars, it's merely the lie cultures tell themselves to justify what is actually very animalistic behavior. We refuse (REFUSE!) to accept that we are animals. Very wonderful animals capable of extraordinary things, but still animals. (Mammals, to be specific.) We kill each other in small and big ways, and we talk a lot about whether the big ways are justified, and whether the small ways are excused, and it's still killing within a species. Very evolutionary, very naturally selective, very animalistic. At least, that's what I think. And a belief in God is also very evolutionary, very naturally selective, and very animalistic because it's tribal. We don't just believe in a God, we believe in different Gods, and for some reason Our God wants us to beat up on the folks who believe in some Other God.

Here's another thing I believe. We're a poor excuse for higher intelligence. For instance, we don't understand large numbers. We just don't. We can grasp the smaller "large" numbers, like 100 or even 1,000. But more than that we can't really visualize. It helps us stay tribal: There aren't so many in our Tribe that it becomes meaningless. When we watch the Olympics, we root for Our Team, but that's really just all the Americans at the Olympic games plus everyone we've already identified as in our tribe. When we rally around after a disaster, we're still not really including the folks we don't like. Those folks are still Others.

Here's my thought experiment for our failure to understand large numbers: the Lottery. One-in-twelve-million-odds, but it only costs a dollar to play, and "you have to be in it to win it." Or, as people say to me, Yes, but someone wins, so why couldn't it be me? And that's accurate, assuming you actually bought a ticket. Your ticket has a chance of winning. Let's look at that large number, though. I assume Regis & Kelly still have a contest every day where someone in the audience wins a prize. So, imagine you're in the audience, and you're holding a ticket with a number on it, from 1 to 156 (roughly). You have people to your left, to your right, in front of you and behind you. The moment comes when someone is going to say a number from 1 to 156. There is a chance your number will be picked. Do you believe you'll win? No, because you can see all the other people holding their tickets. Frankly, if there were ten people in the audience you still wouldn't believe you'd win. With two people in the audience, you'd think you were going to win if you're optimistic, and you might think "I won't win; I don't win anything," if you're pessimistic. But 156 people? No way.

Okay, so now imagine you're at a concert in a stadium with 65,000 seats. Everyone got a ticket, your number is 14,588. A number is being drawn at random. Are you going to win? No way. You can see that. You can see the sea of faces on the other side of the stadium, around both sides, and you know you are but one face in a sea of faces on your side. But what if there were another 184 stadia, all with 65,000 people in them? Everyone got a ticket, numbered from 1 to 12,025,000. Are you going to win now? Well, duh, of course not. You didn't think you were going to win when it was just 155 other people, and certainly not when it was 64,999 other people, so why would you think you were going to win when it's 12,024,999? Because -- with the lottery ticket -- you can't see the other ticket holders. They don't exist. In the end, there are just two people: you and the person who does win. Each time you buy a ticket, you don't win, but it's like flipping a coin: eventually, you think, it has to come up heads.

If we, as humans, could comprehend large numbers, we'd have a lot easier time with stuff. Our tribes would be bigger (maybe even All Humans), our economic/environmental/political policies would be smarter. We'd act more with the future in mind. But we don't, and so we react to the world instead of protecting it.

I actually think we're pretty unevolved in a lot of ways -- oh, sure, we're massively evolved over other animals, but think of all things we could and should do better. We're aggressive, exploitative, selfish, and lack the planning gene. I know we've done great things in technology and science, but we've only been at that stuff for a few hundred years (leaving aside the Greeks and their accomplishments) which isn't a very big slice of the human existence. We're only just starting to work on quantum theory, psychology, cosmology, nanotechnology, and a bunch of other stuff I'm too stupid to name. Sure, Einstein was great, but so was Newton in his time, so who's to say we won't think of Einstein as basic and limited in another two hundred years or so.

I have one exception to all this: Art. Has there been a better painter since Michaelangelo? Can you really say Picasso was better? Different, and extraordinary in his own right, but evolutionarily better? And music: was Beethoven better than Bach, or Mahler better than Mozart? How is it that humans, who can't seem to manage some pretty basic stuff like world peace (uh, just stop shooting and learn to get along) can manage such extraordinary literature, music, art, architecture, and so forth. I can imagine worlds with more evolved higher intelligence, but I can't think they would have more evolved artistic expression.

If I had to posit a divine entity, it would explain that one, delightful anomaly. It would go like this: God is a high-school student preparing for the science fair. There are three Big Bangs, followed by billions of years' of evolution, and three different exemplars of higher intelligence (or three M planets in our own universe; it's big enough). Ours is the "art" planet. Maybe another is "technology." And the third is "human relations." Which civilizations thrive, survive, colonize? Now that would be a cool science fair exhibit, wouldn't it?

Oh, and one last thought. I believe I'm rare in my views. But I don't believe I'm singular or unique. I don't grasp large numbers any more than the next person, but I understand that I don't grasp them, so I try to compensate. Given that there are 6.5 billion people on the planet, odds are someone else believes what I do. And if I could find those people, I could start a religion...

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