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Religion Without God

December 29, 2014 Leave a comment

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/25/opinion/religion-without-god.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0

Ceremony does something for people independent of their theological views. Moreover, these rituals work, if by “work” we mean that they change people’s sense of their lives. It turns out that saying that you are grateful makes you feel grateful. Saying that you are thankful makes you feel thankful.

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Categories: Religion

Now on Twitter

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

I finally joined Twitter. @jayhartlove. Look out world.

Further Evidence of Intermediate Form Theory

March 13, 2013 Leave a comment

A couple of years ago I posted an essay here called “An Intermediate Form Looks Forward to His Replacement.” Please feel free to scroll down and read it if you haven’t. In that article I postulated that mankind’s evolution may have slowed or stopped on a macro-physical level, but that our social abilities are still very much evolving. I connected a brain chemistry change that has been pegged to roughly 6,000 years ago to our starting to live in cities and write down histories. I admit the connection is hardly unimpeachable, but it is one whopper of a coincidence. Also, a change like that gives us hope that we will be able to change again as our social world continues to contract and become more complex.

Now it appears cross-disciplinary science has once again connected the dots and given us a new understanding of facts we have known but could not explain. Neaderthal skulls have a bump in the back that Cromagnons do not. Unless their brains were structured completely differently than all other primates, the bump would accommodate a larger visual cortex. Neanderthal skulls also have a more sloped forehead, which would mean a smaller frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is where all the sensory cues get processed into what we call a social sense, which includes a conscience, the ability to self regulate behavior like patience, and to form long lasting opinions like loyalty. This is why they used to detach the frontal lobes from the rest of the brain when someone went criminally insane.

So now we have a new theory that Neanderthals had great eyesight and their brains were wired around this sensory modality, and they had little ability to deal with other humans socially. This fits nicely with evidence that Neanderthals didn’t travel far from home and had a very small trading radius of only 30 miles, compared with their contemporary modern humans who had up to a 200 mile trading radius.

Along comes the Ice Age 35,000 year ago, Neanderthals fail to network for resources, and they perish. Some crossbred with humans, but they are the only ones to survive.

Isn’t this part of the same path as our becoming city-dwellers 6,000 years ago? How much longer before we move to another stage where we can cope better with pan-global social interactions? Throw another log on the fire, Mr. Darwin.

Categories: Religion

Happy Evolution Weekend

February 7, 2013 Leave a comment

Happy Evolution Weekend, everyone!

The Clergy Letter Project has gathered over 13,000 clergy signatures endorsing a statement that there is no reason why devout followers of religious traditions cannot also embrace the scientific facts of evolution. Both pro- and anti-religious factions have aggressive spokespersons who preach that there is no common ground and no reconciliation possible between those who believe in God and those who accept evolution as fact. A lot of people, myself and the 13,000 clergy members included, do not see the two views as mutually exclusive or even adversarial. If you agree, please check out the activities planned for this weekend. If one of the 591 listed participating churches is near you, you should attend services this Sunday and see how rational people do not have to deny either their intellects or their spirituality.

http://theclergyletterproject.org/rel_evolution_weekend_2013.html

Categories: Religion

AWESOME

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Psychologists consider awe to be a separate emotion, with its own features that differentiate it from say, happiness. I had always considered awe to be more of a physical condition than an emotion, like being excited or surprised. Upon reflection, it makes more sense to think of it as an emotion, since it is a state of mind that flavors your current experience. Awe has a two pronged definition. It is brought on by exposure to something more than what was expected, either bigger, louder, more complex, more beautiful, more of something than you thought it would have. And secondly, and most critically, it moves you to change your mind.

This last piece is called mental accommodation. After experiencing the awesome thing, your mind adjusts the scale of your world view to accommodate the existence of the awesome thing. After the experience, you know that there are such fill-in-the-blank things in the world. Thankfully this does not mean you need ever greater stimulation to achieve awe. Your first kiss may have taken your breath away, but that does not mean there won’t be future kisses that will do the same.

The mental accommodation that comes with awe turns out to do something that can take people years of practice to achieve by purposeful means. It makes you live entirely in the moment. During the act of recalibrating your world view to cope with being overwhelmed, you cannot think about anything else. And living entirely in the moment has a profoundly positive impact on how you perceive time.*

There are other states of mind that also completely focus the mind, like meditation, hypnosis, and terror.

Mystics, shrinks and rollercoaster designers have known something about this kind of focus for ages. After an experience of total focus, the world seems less pressured, you feel like you have more time to do what you need to do. The change in time perception is significant and can be measured. More importantly, with this perceived additional time, stress dissipates, patience increases, and behaviors that are squeezed out by feeling rushed suddenly become easier. These neglected behaviors include such life improving things as time spent with loved ones and time given helping others.

You may think the euphoria you feel after being scared senseless is just being glad to have survived. This does not explain why many people actually love this sensation, and actively seek thrills. These folks love life as much as the rest of us and are not trying to endanger themselves. They get a high from it that adrenaline does not explain. I postulate this high leads to the same kind of tension relief as turning off your cell phone and handing yourself over to a masseur for an hour. The massage coaxes you by physical stimulation to abandon your cares and feel like you’ve got time to relax. 

Time, of course, marches on at the same pace no matter how you feel about it. On the other hand, we live entirely subjective lives, and our perception of time is much more important to us than its actual rate of passing. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to do what you need to do, then you are going to resent the things you need to do, the people you are doing them for, and the shortcuts you take to get it all done. The clock itself seems to move faster. Living a very busy life where you feel this way most of the time will change how you see the passage of time.

A friend who lived a “Type-A’ life once gave a speech about how long it takes to do a particular activity. She made everyone in the audience promise to not look at their watches, and had everyone mentally measure one minute. Her intention was to show that a minute is actually quite a bit of time and you can do a lot in one minute. She also mentally counted it out, and then called what she thought was one minute. She in fact called it sooner than anyone else in the room at 45 seconds.

Religions think so highly of the benefits of awe they have attributed their kind of awe to divine intervention. The Christian Holy Ghost/Spirit is a personification to explain the sensation of being visited by something bigger and more holy than yourself when you are awestruck by the beauty/size/complexity/mercy of the world. The “Peace of God” that follows a visitation of the Holy Spirit is the sense of time slowing down that comes from awe. I am not questioning the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Who am I to say religious awe isn’t sent from Heaven (albeit assisted by church smells and bells designed to illicit awe)? What I am saying is the results are not unexpected given what we know of how awe works.

Eastern philosophies insist that the secret of happiness is to live in the moment. Buddhism in particular teaches to not filter your perception of the world through preconceived notions and to only see the world as it actually is. Seeing the world as it actually is, in all its glory, would be pretty awe inspiring. The moment when a practitioner manages to finally break down the sense of self and completely open up to the reality of the world is probably the ultimate awesome experience. It is said that time becomes meaningless, focus is complete, even death has no hold, in this enlightened state. The sense of having all the time in the world shows up in remarkable feats. For example, someone in satori mediation cannot be startled.

So if awe is so good for us, then why do we seem to lose the sensitivity to be awestruck as we get older? Children are awestruck by things all the time, because everything is new to them. Their minds have to recalibrate continuously as they learn about the world around them. Once you have seen enough of the world, though, and your mind grasps how big and wonderful it all is, even if you love how big and wonderful it all is, you just can’t get all that excited about it anymore. Surprise is an integral part of awe.

The word “awesome” is currently being overused in popular culture to mean anything exceptional. On the other hand, notice who is using it – youth. Youth are growing up with the Internet and smart phones and movies filled with CGI, and all kinds of genuinely awesome stuff. They still do awe. And they love it.

One way to let yourself be awestruck is to put yourself in situations where you are more likely to experience things that are more awesome than you expect. Travel is good for this. I once spent two days in the French Quarter of New Orleans before I looked up and realized the balconies of all the buildings are made of iron, and that I had been walking around with thousands of tons of iron over my head and not realized it. I had a rather large moment of awe. So much so that at the time, years ago, before I had any of this figured out, I thought we needed a measure of existential weight, a unit of measure to be able to compare the awesomeness of different experiences. I coined the term Cubic Geronimo (G3 for short), from the battle cry and how this quantity felt like it occupied space.

The problem with quantifying awe is its subjectivity. Having a unit of measure might be convenient but only if the parties can agree on relative scale. Such a ranking would be molded by a person’s life experience. One person might say that seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is 10 G3, while someone else with more life experience might only rate it a 6. How much your mind has to shift to accommodate the discovery of the awesome thing determines how deeply you experience awe. An experience that completely messes with your mind, like having a Moses-like visitation with God that leaves you gibbering for days, that would score in the millions of Cubic Geronimos. Think Dave at the end of 2001.

I don’t think we need more and greater stimulation to recapture the awe we had so much more often when we were young. Beauty and elegance and complexity can also inspire awe. So can uniqueness of the experience. Remember the first kiss I spoke of earlier. Some of us had a spectacular first kiss that set a high water mark for the rest of our lives. Others of us had an awkward, regrettable first kiss that hardly scored on the G3 scale at all. The good news is, we don’t get to intellectually compare experiences and decide when we are going to be awestruck.

On the other hand, we can decide whether we will be jaded and shielded from being impressed by anything, or open, flexible and vulnerable to being taken by awe. The key is humility. There is a Chinese proverb of a Zen master who offers to pour his student a cup of tea, even though the student’s cup is already full. The master pours anyway, and the cup overflows. When the student objects, the master points out that before the master can pour anything in, the student must first empty his cup to make room. If we walk around thinking we’ve got it all figured out, we will not have any room in our cups to accept any new experiences that may inspire us to awe.

As self-aware, survival-evolved creatures, it is human nature to assemble a world view that satisfies our need to know where we fit into the world. Knowing what is black and what is white and where the grey areas are is part of who we are. Of course, this painting is exactly what the Buddhists tell us is the source of all suffering, and exactly what Jesus told us to avoid when he said don’t judge and let God judge instead. But we do it anyway because it seems like a survival skill to know friend from foe and where you stand.

The trick is to build your world view up to the point where you feel comfortable, but stop before you seal yourself off from the wonders that surround you.

We can all use less pressure in our lives. You can’t easily rearrange your life to eliminate things that put pressure on you. What if instead you could ease your perception of the flow of time so you felt like you have time enough to conduct your life without the pressure? Letting yourself be awestruck once in a while seems to have this effect.

Try it. It’ll be awesome.

 

* “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being” (Forthcoming in Psychological Science)

Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker

http://faculty-gsb.stanford.edu/aaker/pages/documents/TimeandAwe2012_workingpaper.pdf

Categories: Religion

The Seat of the Soul

It has been a while since I blogged about the biological basis of religion. I recently came across some new research that not only puts another piece of the puzzle in place, it may open up a whole new section of the puzzle.

Neuroscientists studying depression may have found that part of the brain responsible for the inner strength for which religious people pray to God.

CONTEXT

In previous essays I established we are wired to attribute supernatural explanations to inexplicable phenomena. This most certainly includes why humans believe in God despite all evidence to the contrary. There are two parts to this proof.

First, our emotions are controlled by the half of the brain that feels without being able to speak, while our intellect is controlled by the half of the brain that analyzes without being able to read the emotions of others. There is always a little voice whispering in our head giving us intuition about what is dangerous vs. safe, good vs. bad.  It’s our own right hemisphere.

Couple this with the fact that our self-consciousness is an outgrowth of our ability to process language, all in the left hemisphere.  “We” with our sense of self, regularly get vital advice from our “other” silent hemisphere in the form of adrenaline rushes, suspicions, flashes of insight, feelings of love, etc. So when there are not sufficient facts on hand to explain something, and it’s something we feel we need to explain, it is only natural for us to assume there is an “other” causing it. So we credit supernatural causes to everything from twists of fate (both good and bad) to things that go bump in the night.

I have also marveled at how the brain has constructed a wall to divide the sense of interior self from the exterior world – where do” I” stop and the world starts. Neurologists working with Buddhist monks have found specific areas of the brain that quiet when the monks move into “satori” to lower that wall, lose the sense of self, and become unified with the world around them.

I make it my business to question coincidences and find connections that open up truths. My motto is, after all, Dark Connections Revealed. So it was not a big leap to link this finding with the research that shows the stronger the sense of self, the more easily startled, suspicious, and politically conservative a person becomes. Ergo, an explanation for why conservative people, with their strong sense of self, suspect even more strongly the presence of supernatural causation for the inexplicable. Yes, I am not only talking about scapegoating (someone must be to blame) and superstitious behavior, but also faith in God.

THE NEW DISCOVERY

Into this mix we now add a recent breakthrough in research on depression. There is a set of ganglia in the front half of the center portion of our brains called the frontolimbic network. It helps us process and respond to strong emotions.  This area works closely with another area called the right anterior temporal lobe (RATL). The RATL helps up put our actions and the actions of others into social context. Recall it is the right hemisphere that reads and understands the emotions of others. When the RATL judges whether a behavior – our own or other’s – deserves blame or indignation, a third brain area is activated, called the adjacent septal region of the subgenual cingulate cortex (ASRSCC).  In normal, functioning folk, these three areas communicate openly and constantly.

In chronically depressed people, this cross-talk has been shut down. Guilty feelings produce activity in the frontolimbic network, but there is none of the usual social context feedback from the RATL or the ASRSCC. Electroshock therapy, which resets all the brain’s connections by wiping everything out and starting fresh, gives temporary relief. Drugs that force the brain to create high levels of neurotransmitters, or that increase the sensitivity to such chemicals can help for a while too, by making it easier for any signal to get heard. But when these three brain areas fail in their regular communication, the person falls back into their old pattern, which is dominated by feelings that they are to blame for everything bad. It is literally as if the little voice in your head that tells the rest of us that it will be okay, that it isn’t all your fault, that you need to step back and get perspective, has been shut off.*

WHAT IT MEANS

One of the cornerstones of religious faith is the notion that all things are possible with God. The western biblical traditions point to the miracles in the Old Testament as evidence that God can do anything. The modern application of this is that God can help you no matter what, so don’t give up. Jesus let his enemies kill him so you can be forgiven your transgressions and you don’t go through life burdened with guilt. The ancient gods of eastern traditions are loved to this day because their message has always been hang in there, have faith, and don’t give up.

But wait a minute. Isn’t that the job of these brain connections that are missing in depressed people?

If there ever was anything that makes a huge difference in a person’s life, and for which there is no logical explanation, it is how people find the strength to go on in the face of crushing adversity.

If we are already wired to give credit to God for things like falling in love, then we are clearly primed to give God credit for inner strength.

So I postulate that in addition to the sense of “other” we get from the right hemisphere looking over “our” shoulder, and in addition to the good advice we get “out of nowhere” from the right hemisphere, we also get inner strength from the limbic cross connections discussed above.

These are the components that make up the evidence of God.

While I’m on a roll, let me throw into play one last nasty connection. Evolutionary biologists studying the way random genetic changes in the gene pool add up to create new features have back-calculated when the last significant change occurred in our brains. It was a lot more recently than you might think. It was 6,000 years ago, which is coincidentally when we started building cities and writing down lessons for future generations, including the myths that became our religious institutions. Would you like to guess which area of the brain was the last one to click into our current configuration? That’s right: the limbic system.

Do I think this supports an atheist explanation for how our brains deserve all the credit we give to God? Absolutely. Will this change my feelings about my relation to God? It can’t – I have no choice due to how I am wired. Will such arguments change anybody’s minds about their faith in God? No fucking way. Recall that folks who most strongly cling to God are the ones with the strongest sense of self, the strongest barriers to the outside world, the ones most likely to define the world in terms of Us vs. Them. So all such arguments will ever do is push atheist scientists further into the Them camp as enemies. We have already seen how vocal atheism has created a backlash against science education in general. I am not interested in fueling the fire that burns our children’s future.

On the other hand, I do think this research needs to be taken further. I want to see the studies on the quieting of the brain centers during satori linked up with the limbic cross connection work. This could lead to forms of meditation that cure depression. It could also shed more light on why people refuse to give themselves credit for their abilities and accomplishments. Again, I am not out to dispel anyone’s faith in God. But I do think there is a link here to people giving up on themselves and accepting abusive relationships.

In the meantime, I will continue to try to stay abreast of new discoveries in neuroscience and keep making as many connections as I can to find the bigger truths about who we are.

Thank you for listening.

*The June 2012 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. Researchers in Manchester, England and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1171078

Categories: Religion

Lucklifting

November 7, 2010 Leave a comment

“But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money–booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

          Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
          Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”

– W. H. Murray in The Scottish Himalaya Expedition, 1951.

“In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: A New Hope

“You can’t win if you don’t play.” – California Lottery ad campaign.

Is good luck just randomness that happens to benefit us?  Is the same true of bad luck?  Is there anything we can do to influence our luck, or is it by definition random?  Doesn’t it seem that some folks just make their own luck?  Aren’t there folks who never have anything but bad luck?  What if there was a way to change your luck?

First, let’s look at how different systems use luck.

There is a great misconception that entrepreneurs are risk takers.  In fact, entrepreneurs are risk averse. They research every risk and mitigate it and plan around it as best they can before committing their own money into a new venture.  They establish tolerances of success and failure, and contingencies and exit strategies.  They go to great lengths to eliminate random error and the need for luck.  They know what they are getting themselves into.  But the difference between them and ordinary folk is they do act.

Another hugely misunderstood concept is the role randomness plays in natural selection in evolution.  If genetic changes were in fact random, then every change in one direction would eventually be cancelled by a change in the other direction.  But evolution is not a zero-sum game.  Changes made put the organism in a new survival paradigm where subsequent changes affect it differently than if the subsequent changes had happened first.  A subtle artifact of this ongoing change is how a genepool pre-loads options in anticipation of environmental changes.  When the environment changes and puts survival stress on a population, those with the right stuff to survive already have those traits in their genetic makeup.  Options build in a genepool all the time, by random mutation.  Most mutations don’t show.  But if they are needed, then they are there to use, for those lucky individuals that have the right ones.  Geneticists track how this reserve of options builds up, and they have successfully predicted when a change in the manifested phenotype will appear.

Praying to God is an attempt to change the luck that one faces.  If you have formulated a desire and thought about the consequences and gone ahead and asked God for assistance, then you have also arranged your mind to see answers that you wouldn’t have seen had you not gotten your thoughts together.  Our Pagan and Mystic brethren do the same thing to their minds when they cast spells.

3000 years ago, the Vedic sages of India figured out that what you do in the world affects how the world treats you.  The concept of Karma was then picked up and adapted by several Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism.  If we look at the unseen consequences of our actions as a pre-loading of options that await us, much like the pre-loading of a genepool, then it follows that our actions will “come around” to affect us in the future.

But no matter how good we are, we still only encounter what life puts in our path, which has a large random component.  It is that random component that still leaves us at the mercy of luck.

Entrepreneurs act where others do not.  And all those potential survival mechanisms only evolve to usefulness if the environment changes.  And praying or casting only prepares you to see answers once you have acted upon your desires.  So does acting, committing to a path, eliminate the randomness of what you will encounter going forward?  Committing means you will try harder, and work harder to overcome obstacles that arise.  You will learn skills that will make you more effective and efficient.  You will put yourself in the path of people who can help you.  But can we view the changes in opportunity that arise from action as an actual change in the universe brought on by our actions?

The perception is that once we take action, the universe will respond with options we could not have seen had we not taken that first step.  What if this perception isn’t an illusion?  If Karma is the cosmic equivalent of Conservation of Energy, then why can’t there be a cosmic equivalent to Conservation of Momentum?  If putting good into the world really means good will come back, then why shouldn’t action into the world change the opportunities encountered on that path? 

I propose a new concept to explain this momentum effect, this magic Goethe (and later Murray) spoke about.  “Lucklifting” is when the universe seems to open up new possibilities for you once you have committed to take action.  As described above, there is an actual cause and effect – the only question is whether it is just in ourselves.  This is not just a subjective or delusional phenomenon.  It is experienced subjectively, and is often attributed to luck.  I propose this kind of luck is actually changeable.  By taking that step and committing to action, by moving your plans into the world, you change your luck going forward.  Just as a boat’s prow lifts the boat higher in the water with forward motion, your luck lifts as you push ahead.

Motivational speakers make much of the power of positive thinking.  This is a good start.  And this fits with the concept of Karma.  But I think the key that eludes all those folks who take those high prices motivational seminars is that lucklifting only happens once you commit real resources and start spending real time moving ahead with your plans.

How many times have you been told the only thing standing between you and your dreams is your own inaction?  Didn’t that seem a shaming, unfair thing to be told?  Until we take action and trigger the lucklifting, high goals do seem out of reach.  Those goals become more easily reached once you start reaching.  Maybe the goal wasn’t as far off as you originally thought, and once you are committed to it, you can more clearly see how near or far it really is.  But you won’t know that unless you start.

Of course there is no substitute for properly researching a venture before starting it.  Take a tip from the entrepreneurs, and eliminate risk whenever you can.  However strong the lucklifting effect may be, charging off unprepared is still likely to be met with failure,

I’m sure the Vedas thought of this a long time ago and there is no doubt a word for it in Sanskrit.  But I haven’t seen it given a name in English.

Karma gives us a reason to always do the right thing.  Lucklifting gives us a reason to move ahead with our dreams.

Categories: Religion
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