What’s a Thinking Social Primate to do?

We climb the trees in search of fruit, pick critters off each other’s back, keep the little ones safe, and hope to mate one in a while.  But that’s the stuff of animals.  We get that for free.  Sure, we can be mindful of it, enjoy the moment for a while.  But then that big brain of ours starts to crunch the numbers of our existence.  Tries to make sense of things.  That’s something unique about us, even among the social primates: we ponder, wonder and dream.  In short, we engage in inductive reasoning.  We create theory.  Some more than others.  Some better than others.  But we all do it.  It’s what got us here.  Not sharp tooth, not long claw, but the ability to generate ideas.

So if, like me, you happen to be one, a thinking social primate that is, go big!  Feed what makes us unique.  Infuse your mind with the ideas others have collected.  It’s your birthright.  Your niche among the living things on this planet.  And should you decide to piece together an accurate view of the universe, you will be following the highest and best goal of a sentient life form: you will be the universe looking at itself.

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Evolutionist Through and Through

They started calling us atheists a long time ago, unable to sense the double-negation through the fog of their own confusion: we didn’t believe in something that doesn’t exist.  Nowadays there’s a bunch of them calling us (some of us) ‘evolutionist’.  Point.  Set.  Match.  This time they got it right!

Yep, I am an evolutionist.  Have been since college where I learned a bunch of stuff about the world, and put 1 and 1 together, and – voila! – evolution explains pretty much everything going on, life-wise.  Evolution explains Darwin’s finches.  Explains 15 foot long giraffe laryngeal nerves.  Explains ant societies.  Explains primate societies.  Even explains why some (many) (most) humans have a hard time thinking clearly about matters close to home.  It doesn’t ultimately serve them.

We are thinking critters.  That’s out adaptation.  Can’t run faster than predators.  Aren’t bigger.  But we can think.  Been doing it for eons.  Long ago some post-ape ancestors started thinking out loud about the world and themselves.  Came up with stories, real doozies, to explain things.  Some of those stories eventually got written down.  And Some people today still believe in them.  Works for them too.  Quick answers to the nagging questions of existence.  Nothing else to see here.  Move on folks, off to work, off to buy stuff, to eat, to sleep, to shit, to screw.  If you are lucky.

Evolution, as a source of comfort, is a dry tit.  Looks good, doesn’t satiate.  Ideas can be right and yet not satisfy.  And why should they.  We didn’t evolve to find deep truths about the universe.  We evolved to make more humans.  We didn’t evolve to send kids to ivy league colleges.  We evolved to make more kids.  It’s easy to see why some (many) people keep going back to hear more of the old stories, to keep paying those that make a living off the old stories.  Those stories are comfort food for a thinking primate.  Fictional stories, but useful in the evolutionary sense.  No need to learn a ton of biology, the long road of paleontology, the full swath of anthropology, a bunch of fancy math, how to think with precise logic.  One hour of stories on Sunday and it’s back into the fray.  Maybe say a few prayers during the week to keep up the ruse.  Not that it worked for me.

So I’m an evolutionist.  Never liked ‘atheist’.  Still can’t say ‘humanist’ without getting a spongy feeling in my pit.  Yes, the humanist ideals are all dead on.  But the word itself sounds like mashed chickpeas.  It doesn’t capture the essence of what is me.  But ‘evolutionist’, wow!  If you are going to call me an ‘ist’, that’s the one.

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Any Port In A Storm?

This is about the fictional world views that many humans embrace, and how they need, seek and find validation to feel existentially whole without the solace of axiomatic knowledge and rational thought.

The universe is a really big and complex place, bigger and more complex than we humans are capable of grasping intuitively. An uneducated human might figure out how to get through their day, feed themselves, and eventually mate if they are lucky. That’s what evolution has given us. But we also evolved to think and speak, and we can record things we learn and grow a body of knowledge. We can educate ourselves with the accumulated knowledge of others. Being conceptual critters, some of us have figured out clever ways to see beyond intuition into realms of the universe not readily apparent to the uneducated human. Some humans, through history, have figured out things about the universe that were not within the grasp of earlier humans, or even of their contemporaries, and, fortunately for us they recorded what they found so we can learn and know it too.

Still, not everyone gets to see all of what other humans have discovered. Some don’t have access to knowledge, which is a shame. Some don’t have the time to learn, which is also a shame. And some don’t have the ability, which is a reality. Most of us can get through our days without constant introspection into our own nature, but to some extent we all need to trust that we are right about our view of the world. Such is the nature of sentience that if you have it, you want to know it’s real. Having sentience without solid truths on which to hang one’s thoughts is an existential nightmare, so it’s understandable that many humans latch onto useful fictions to get them through their day. Evolution doesn’t strive for perfection or truth, only to survive to the next generation. And so the world views of humans need not be truthful; they need only be useful. For many humans, perhaps most, clinging to a useful fiction to describe their existence and their experience suffices. Any port in a storm.

Many humans get by with just their intuition, plus the mostly fictional folk tales they have inherited, and often with the encouragement of people who make a living assuaging the imaginations of the under-educated. There is an entire profession who profits from supporting the superstitious intuitions of the under-educated and the ineducable. Humans who cling to the fictions they inherited still have the pangs of doubt that accompany any departure from truth and reality. When viewed alone, or without continual reinforcement, these fictional world views eventually look ridiculous. Therefore people who hold such fictions need them constantly validated.

Such is the nature of human societies that any need produces the opportunity for gainful employment. From ancient times people have figured out ways to make a living off the doubts of others. This profession became institutionalized long ago in the form of religions. Immense corporations have emerged to validate the useful fictions of those who haven’t been able to learn the truths of the universe that others have discovered so far. How this was done in prehistoric times is unknown, but the now-standard approach to making a living validating people’s fictions is to integrate their natural desire for social contact with a weekly review of the particular fiction’s narrative. So it’s more like “Any port on Sunday morning.”

Not all humans readily accept fictional explanations of the world. Some look to the human accumulation of knowledge and the disciplined thought processes we call science and rational thought. Rational thought and science are different ways of thinking compared to embracing a useful fiction. Where the former is an active process, the latter is the maintenance of a narrative. Rational thought and science are the exploration, vetting and accumulation of knowledge. By contrast, the fictions of religion are narratives to be learned and reinforced. Not that science and rational thought fully describe the universe, or even the tiny realm that is human experience. They go a long way toward describing all of what we see with unaided and aided eyes, and their ideas are interconnected in a mutually supporting matrix of verifiable theory. Yet they offer cold reason to an emotive and instinctual species.

Why do some humans accept a reality that ranges from bland to harsh, when everywhere in their reach are useful fictions with narratives and rituals tailored to the evolved needs of a sentient social species? Why just that one port in the storm? Science writer Chet Raymo has written “In the human self the universe becomes conscious of itself.” In some humans more than others, it seems. To this science-embracing rational-aspiring presumably sentient human there is great beauty in the thought that through our consciousness the universe can see itself. It says that our minds have a unique transcendence among the matter and energy in the universe, those of us who choose reality over fiction regardless how useful the fiction might be.

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Are You Living In Your Imagination?

My Stammtisch recently delved into the idea that people’s world views are infused with their imagining of things to varying degrees, some a little, some a lot.  I know it took me years to break out of wanting the world to be the way I had imagined it in my youth.  I look around and see people who are still living inside their imaginations – the adults like this tend to suffer for not being grounded.  It seems that those of us susceptible to imagery need to work consciously at controlling when and where we let the imagery in, and when and where we can safely let the magic flow over us.  Are you living in your own imagination?  To what degree?

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How Much Supernatural Can You Tolerate?

The person sitting on your left on the subway might believe that an unseen all-knowing white male is in control of the universe.  The person sitting to your right might believe in a vague ethereal interconnectedness in the universe that explains improbable events.  The person directly across from you might claim to believe only in science, but they play a lucky lottery number.  What all of these have in common is that they believe there is something supernatural in the universe, though they differ greatly in the extent to which they assign concepts to the supernatural.

I no longer sense anything supernatural in my experience.  After years of education and experience I have learned the psychology behind a number of phenomena that might seem supernatural.  And I’ve studied science in college and in a lifetime of reading with a discerning eye for truthfulness – thank you A. J. Ayer!  But I also get that there are people who don’t get physics and psychology like I do, and I cannot fault them for ascribing agency to random events, or to physical phenomena that they have not studied.  So I’m comfortable with other people claiming to perceive something supernatural.  As for them ascribing concepts to something they clearly see as inexplicable, that’s another matter.

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What does Doubt Mean to a Humanist, Atheist or Freethinker?

I have to disclaim that topic isn’t fully developed…

Most Humanists I’ve met have no end of opinions, nearly all of which are based on science or similar principles.  But where’s the doubt?  It shows up in the skeptical stance that Humanists take towards claims of the paranormal, but even there it’s not so much doubt as a reliance on hard science in an effort to debunk dubious claims.

So where’s the doubt?  There isn’t much doubt in the hallmark of Humanist perspective, the scientific method.  That’s a given for most humanists.  It is founded on reason, which we cherish.

Doubt is present when we consider claims of rationality, particularly when we detect the scent of lingering mysteries, if not outright falsehoods.  Maybe that’s the home of doubt for Humanists – at the gate where new ideas come in, when we examine them to see if they pass muster.

There are people who make more out of doubt than the typical Humanist does.  I’m thinking of people I’ve heard dismiss the strength or validity of mathematics because of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, or who dismiss physics because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the idea of Indeterminacy in Quantum physics.   They throw out the baby (the body of science) with the bath water (the mystery).   This is a case of unfettered doubt.

I’m left wondering what room Humanists have for doubt, beyond the gatekeeper for accepting knowledge.

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What do Humanists, Atheists and Freethinkers do with Life’s Mysteries?

Get a bunch of Humanists together and they are likely to discuss the follies of religion, or perhaps they explore some scientific phenomenon.  But rarely in my experience do they delve into life’s mysteries, which can range from the mundane, like why the the toilet paper roll is empty when you most need it, to the sublime like the temperature of emotions evoked by rainbows.

Much of the mystery people feel is subjective, maybe all of it.  Not everything is subjective though.  The rock that we might stub our toe on is itself objective, and it’s fair to say that the pain we felt is objective to the extent that our neural response can be measured.  But what we get from the pain, the thoughts and emotions it evokes, fall squarely in the vastness of our minds and is, to the current state of science, subjective.  None of this need be mysterious however, unless we look back on why we stubbed our toe in the first place.  People might see coincidence or agency in the circumstances that lead to toe hitting stone, and that’s where mystery shows up.

Supernatural – attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. (of a manifestation or event)

People who believe in the tenets of mainstream religions attribute many of life’s mysteries to their particular deities.  I’m not talking about toilet paper here, but maybe rainbows.  To a Humanist like me, the religious folks are ascribing meaning or at least cause,to mystery without a basis for doing so; they are creating and putting stock in supernatural explanations.

But what does the Humanist do with life’s mysteries?

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