Is Everyone Invited?

We all have some sense of mystery, but the degree varies greatly.  Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  The same is true of knowledge, for most people in varying degrees.  If evolution is indistinguishable from magic to someone, and therefore entirely mystical, they can only accept evolution on faith.

If someone cannot understand cellular biology, genetics, evolution, cosmology, etc., or if they can’t see the concilience of it all, or if they get distracted by the edges of knowledge instead of seeing its vastness, can they ever know a naturalistic understanding of everything?

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Measuring Self-deception

Is there a way to measure a person’s propensity for self-deception, integrity, intellectual honesty, etc.  This is important.  It seems people vary in the degree to which they accept simplistic a priori assumptions, in the way they are susceptible to fallacies, and to the degree in which they are comfortable with cognitive dissonance.  If there was an objective way to measure these, we’d know a lot more about why we humans believe silly things, and why we act against our own interests.  And we could use it to improve themselves!

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Humanists’ Divergent Characteristics

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution implies that the most common traits in a population are those that have best helped the organisms to adapt to their environments in the past.  Edward O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology says that social forms, which include culture and mythology, evolve according to the same rules as organisms.  Given that most humans, both past and present, subscribe to some form of mythology, the species as a whole has apparently evolved to fabricate fictitious world-views in the absence of accurate and comprehensive knowledge.  That they do so with such consistency implies that mythology, in whatever form, must have been important to human survival since the species’ emergence.

Humans of the distant past invented and relied upon fictional accounts of their world to fill the voids in their imaginations, for though they had the facility to reason, they did not have the benefit of a comprehensive body of recorded knowledge from which they might infer truths about their world.  While social evolution responds much faster to changing conditions than does biological evolution, it still proceeds slowly in terms of individual lifetimes.  The characteristics of organisms only change in response to changed conditions, and the conditions under which the trait of free thought might spread among large numbers of humans have only emerged within the past few generations.  Many, perhaps most, modern humans are at least aware that a substantial body of knowledge has accumulated over the past two millennia, but only a relative few use that knowledge to free their minds of belief in myths.

In addition to the inertia of social change, another impediment to the widespread appreciation of accumulated knowledge is seen in the measure of human’s mental capacity.  Many do not have the mental facilities to ‘connect the dots’ among the accumulated ideas.  Were they to learn the basic ideas that lead to free thought, many humans could only trust what they were taught on the authority of the teacher, and only then if it was socially important for them to do so.  They would base their world-views on imposed belief rather than on freely analyzed knowledge and fail to appreciate the myriad connections among knowledge, the “Concilience” which Wilson defined in his eponymous book.

Some humans, past and present, have escaped the mental confines of socially evolved mythology to explore the truths discovered by those who have preceded them, and to form their own truthful view of the world.  These freethinking humans are a minority today as they probably have been throughout the species’ development, for free thought was almost certainly a severe social liability until very recent times.  Many of the so-called heretics of the Spanish Inquisition were no doubt freethinking humans.  It is an easy interpolation to go from relatively recent persecutions of freethinkers by myth-believers back in time to the persecution of freethinkers within prehistoric tribes of humans.

Such is not idle speculation.  In the distant past, it was more important for humans to organize into (small) cohesive groups than it was for them to be accurate in their introspective thinking about the world around them.  In Darwin’s terms, freethinking was selected against in favor of social cohesiveness.  While intelligence and open-mindedness convey advantage to individuals, these traits can be at odds with the groupthink of social cohesiveness.  For most human ancestors, clear thinking about their universe would have to wait until they and their descendents solved the immediate survival problems of their day.

It took the advent of civilized society that embraced the rights of individuals for humans to gain the social freedom to plumb the depths of their own existence.  In civilized societies, especially those with robust economies, humans now have the opportunity to escape the restrictive social conditions under which the species developed, and to allow their minds a full and truthful understanding of the world.  That only a few choose to do so is a reflection of the weight of evolved social instinct, and of an inequitable distribution of cognative characteristics that allow some to comprehend, even to independently infer, what others cannot.

Humanists have in common the divergent characteristic of freethinking, and so we must appreciate the times in which we live.  The emergence of tolerant society and of robust economies, both recent conditions of our species’ environments, have given us a reprieve from past pressures of natural selection that would have crushed our divergent traits had we lived in earlier times.  We are fortunate to live in these times but we must maintain the conditions that have allowed us to flourish: civilized societies, robust economies, and the rights of individuals.  In short, we must continue being humanists.

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Transcendence from Organic Life

First an admission: I’m human.  There, got that over with.  With the obvious out in the open, let me describe how I’m not human.  I don’t defecate wherever I please, I restrain my lusts for private moments and I’ve never tasted human flesh.  You probably lead a similar existence.  You see, we have transcended the short nasty and brutish existence of our human ancestors.  Some of us more than others unfortunately.

Modern humans, those living in civilized society, have transcended our organic selves.  Call it an infection of memes if you must, but we have adopted social conventions that set us apart from our genetic primate cousins.  Our transcendence is not limited to bodily functions, either.  We have made pacts with one another to behave in ways that result in the better good for all, on one hand, and which leave none behind on the other.  For the most part.  The U.S. Bill of Rights is one of our shining moments.  So too the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Edward O. Wilson saw patterns in the behavior of ants that are mirrored in the behavior of all social creatures including Homo sapiens.  Our behavior, it turns out, has been formed by evolution much the same as our bodies have.  Formed, but not ultimately dictated.  Wilson’s sociobiology has morphed into evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, which are giving us a window into the development of our emotions.  We can introspectively understand how the drivers of our behavior came to be.   Just as they can be understood, so too can they be tamed.

We can choose to be smarter than our emotions by using the mental skill of reason.  It’s our species shining trait, like the lion’s teeth and the elephant’s bulk.  Reason has given us our niche in the world and has allowed us to flourish.  Some use it more than others, and there have been times when it was little used for ages, but reason defines us.  It also has a property that is unique among the attributes of animals large and small; reason can be used reflexively, it can be used on itself.  Humans have long struggled to reason about themselves, inserting myth for uncertainty.  We live in a time when that uncertainty is dissolving.

Reason has jumpstarted our transcendence of the organic existence of our ancestors.  It’s sad in a way to think that our more recent ancestors had the capacity to live as we do and yet had not accumulated the knowledge and experience we know of as history in order to make good use of reason.  It’s equally sad to realize that we today do not know the full benefit of reason, due in large part to the vast vestiges of organic humanity among us that hold us back.  So here we are, somehow more than animals, what with our ability to reason, and yet still bound to animal bodies with animal emotions, er, instincts.

Transcendence is the thing we all wanted to find.  Some look for it in the myths of antiquity, some in mind-altering substances.  Some of us see it in our conscious shaping of society, like the Bill of Rights.  Transcendence is our ticket to free will out of the land of determinism.  Hopefully we’ll choose the right train!  Hopefully we can use our reason to connect the dots to make the utopian world we would all like to inhabit.  Should there be some that disdain utopia, there’s always the jungle from whence we came; they should be free to return.

Sadly, not everyone is ready for such an abstract journey.  It’s likely that the concrete-operationals among us will never “get it”, though there is hope for their descendents. And there may always be those that have to take it on faith that smarter people have found truths that are beyond the throng’s grasp, as it is with the hard sciences today.

Humanity is on a journey to transcendence.  We may have barely just begun, or we may be near the destination.  A trip to third world countries, to our inner cities or to the backwaters of civil society hint at the former.  Our courts and schools hint at the latter.  Oh that we can all live to see the day.

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The Skeptic Society

Quote: “…to engage leading experts in investigating the paranormal, fringe science, pseudoscience, and extraordinary claims of all kinds, promote critical thinking, and serve as an educational tool for those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint.”

Publication:  SKEPTIC magazine

Website:  http://www.skeptic.com/

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The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, formerly CSICOP)

Quote:  “The mission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.”

Publication:  Skeptical Inquirer

Website:  http://www.csicop.org

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Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)

Quote:  “The Southern Poverty Law Center is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education and other forms of advocacy, we work toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality. ”

Website:  http://www.splcenter.org

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