Tag Archives: Life

Lessons in Humility

Our forebears thought the sky was a solid dome above the Earth, in which the stars were embedded.

By the second century AD, we had realized that the planets were out in space, but we still thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This offended our self-image so much that when Galileo supported the idea, we imprisoned him.

The Copernican view was finally accepted, but we still thought we were exceptional because the laws of physics were different on Earth than in the heavens. Isaac Newton changed all that. In 1687, he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, proving that a single Law of Gravity could explain movements in both heaven and Earth.

A century after Netwon, thanks to the tireless work of William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, it became known that our solar system is embedded in a gigantic galaxy, the Milky Way. When Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to a nearby star as 11.4 light-years, people were agog.

In 1920, we learned that, not only were we not at the center of the solar system, but our solar system was not at the center of our galaxy. Later in that decade, we would learn that our galaxy was but one among many.

Close on the heels of that discovery, Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. We were becoming a smaller part of the whole all the time. And at an accelerating rate: at the close of the century, we realized that the universe is flying apart faster and faster.

Working the expansion backward, Alexander Friedmann had suggested, in 1922, that the universe could have been born in what we now call the Big Bang. Even Einstein initially called the idea “suspicious” but by mid-century, it had begun to take hold. Apparently we are even less than the dust of the Earth: we are detritus from a random quantum fluctuation.

In 1600, Giodano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for, among other heresies, suggesting that the stars were suns much like ours, with inhabited planets. It was not until the time of America’s Civil War that conclusive proof was found that he was right about the suns, and not until after the first Gulf War that he was right about the planets.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that our world was almost certainly the only inhabited one in the universe. The scientific consensus now seems to be that life on other worlds is inevitable.

I was also taught humans were the only animals who could reason or use tools. I just finished a book about an African Grey parrot who could hold an intelligent conversation, in English, infused with a mischievous sense of humor. Many species have been observed not only to use but to make tools.

Our self-concept has come a long way from being the apex of creation, in a domed terrarium made especially for us to inhabit, only a few thousand years ago. We now know we are specs on a pale blue dot that orbits a larger, white dot that occupies a not-so-special place two thirds of the way down one of the spiral arms of a galaxy that has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.


Coming toward us at 110 kilometers per second is the Andromeda galaxy — three times as large at the Milky Way and with its own supermassive black hole. Fortunately, space is so vast that it will be 4 billion years before the galaxies collide. Our best guess is that when they do, the Earth will first be pulled toward the dual black holes and then ejected to intergalactic space.

But nobody will be here to witness Earth’s ignominious end. Three billion years earlier (only a billion from now) the radiation from the Sun will have grown so intense that it will have extinguished the last spark of life on our planet.

Life was born here 3.5 billion years ago, and has less than 1 billion to go. Now that we are well past middle age, perhaps it is time to reflect on our accomplishments.

If we can be proud of anything, it is this: that we have discovered the vastness of space and time in the universe, and our correspondingly humble position in it. After centuries of fighting against our change in circumstance, we may also be proud of having exchanged our offense for awe.

Have We Flown Evolution’s Perch?

The Moral Landscape is one of those books in which you find little gems of insight that are only tangentially related to the main subject. Here is one of them.

As with mathematics, science, art, and almost everything else that interests us, our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.

Is this true? Have we really flown the perch?

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

In context, Sam Harris was emphasizing that “the view of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [he is] advocating … cannot be directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives.” For example, “The temptation to start each day with several glazed donuts and end it with an extramarital affair might be difficult for some people to resist, for reasons that are easily understood in evolutionary terms, but there are surely better ways to maximize one’s long-term well-being.”

The mechanism of evolution is so simple as to be almost tautological: the fittest survive and reproduce. How could we possibly escape it? Are we not chained to our perch just as securely as Fabritius’s poor goldfinch?

Yes and no.

Evolution has bred many strong drives into us, and those aren’t going away. Harris mentions two: eating fats and sweets, and sexual desires that conflict with inbred sexual jealousies and taboos. Like it or not, most of us will be chained to perches like those for the foreseeable future.

Are we utterly stuck, then?

If we were the only ones evolving, we might be. Fortunately, we host a class of parasites that we have met before on this blog: the memes. You’ll recall that a meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom, an idea, etc. Like genes, memes are subject to mutation and recombination. The most successful memes drive their hosts to propagate them. An obvious example is a religion that includes a meme for evangelism.

Our bodies have evolved to the point where our privilege to reproduce (if we so wish) is more or less assured. Thanks our well-developed brains, we have pretty much figured out how to stay alive until the age of reproduction. Now, the evolution of the memes we host affects our lives more than any physical evolution we may be undergoing. Certainly our memes’ evolution is much, much more rapid than our continuing genetic evolution.

A clear example of how memetic evolution now overwhelms the physical is the fact that as women in a culture become more educated, their birth rate drops. (No disrespect to large families here. I have one myself!)

Also consider the rapidly expanding acceptance of homosexual and transgender behavior in the First World. If ever there was a meme that was overwhelming genetic evolution’s countermeasures, that is it!

Finally, consider that the warlike behavior that most people identify with “survival of the fittest” is steadily being replaced by cooperation. (Yes, it’s true.) The memes that produce peaceful behavior and human flourishing are winning. One might cite Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression in Ukraine as a counter-example, but the worldwide outrage over what would have been considered normal behavior 150 years ago only proves my point.

I think this is pretty cool. Evolution, mindless though it may be, has made us wings and cut us free.


No Rest for the Wicked?

But the wicked are like the troubled sea,
when it cannot rest,
whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
There is no peace, saith my God, for the wicked.
Isaiah 57:20-21 KJV

No rest and no peace for the wicked? That may be true in some ways. If you’re a fugitive being hunted by the CIA like Edward Snowden, you are doomed to a life without rest.

However, in one very important way, I find that life is much more restful now that I’m one of the wicked. I can accept people as they are. I can sincerely wish their dreams will come true. I don’t have to be anxious because their wishes and actions are not what God supposedly wants them to be.

Back in my evangelical days, if one of my children had abandoned the faith I would have been incredibly anxious. Now, I only want my kids to live with integrity, whether that’s with faith or without it. As they have emerged into adulthood, their take on the faith in which they were raised has varied, but they all have very high integrity. I get to enjoy each one of them without worrying over their souls.

It’s not that I think every possible way of thinking or acting is just fine. There are still things that bug me a great deal. The world’s troubled seas still cast up mire and dirt.

During a storm, it is a bad idea to tie your boat to a fixed dock. It can be dashed to pieces. Far better to moor or anchor your boat where it can adjust itself to face the wind.

In yet another surprise from my deconversion that  I find that I am safer, happier and more at peace when I’m anchored in open water.

Valuing Love Itself

I started this post all wrong. I was looking for a certain quotation about love, but opened my Kindle to the wrong book — one about computer programming. I searched for the word love, and up came the dedication page:

For Ann Marie: The ever enduring love of my life.

Not the quote I was looking for, but what do you know!? Even software engineers have love at the center of their lives.

Next, I opened the book I had intended to open. It has a high-sounding title, Ethical Empowerment: Virtue Beyond the Paradigms, but it, too, has love at the center:

One of the key arguments of this book is that the basis of morality and its ethical conceptualizations concern nothing less than universal love. (Kindle location 282.)

Although love is at the center of everything from a software developer’s heart to a philosopher’s ethical system, we sometimes value everything about love except love itself.

As the father of six children who range from 18 years old to 29, I have had the pleasure of seeing romantic love, in particular, bloom in many forms. It has not always unfolded according to the prescribed sequence of boy meets girl; they become friends; they go on dates; they get engaged; they somehow survive the planning of a big wedding; they get married; they wait a few years to have kids; they have children of their own; and the cycle repeats.

In fact, it has never unfolded like that. At least not yet, but with 6 kids anything can still happen.

So what’s a parent to do when his or her children don’t follow the traditional path? (A path that is more fiction than tradition, but that’s another story.)

I’ll tell you what I do. I enjoy each flower of love for what it is. If it’s toxic, I might say so, but I need to be sure that the toxin is really in the flower, and not in my own ideas about the flower. That is very rare.

Far more often, each flower is beautiful in its own way. If my children are experiencing love, I can be happy for them — especially if they are doing so on their own heart-felt terms and not on someone else’s agenda. As I said, let’s value and enjoy love itself, rather than everything else about it.

Just the fact that love occurs at all is amazing and beautiful, isn’t it? Who would have thought that particles of matter could float through the universe for billions of years, be cycled through exploding stars, coalesce into a planet, be coaxed out of the slime by Sun and Moon, come to life, and finally evolve to the point where they love each other?

The fact that we get to witness this is pretty sweet, too. I plan to enjoy it!

Bean Farming, Atheism and Altruism

BohnanzaI spent last Friday evening in friendly competition with other freethinkers, playing Bohnanza.

In this game, you try to farm more beans than anyone else by playing the right bean card at the right moment. What makes it interesting is that you can strategically trade cards with other players to get what you want. You can even donate them.

Why would you donate a card to an opponent? The reason explained to me (I was a first-time player) was that you must play your cards in the order they appear in your hand, so a donation can clear away a card that’s interfering with your optimal sequence.

Anyone who grew up with me knows that I like to win at games — especially strategy games. So it might come as a surprise that my first donation was simply because I saw that another player could profit from my card. It did me no immediate good whatsoever.

“Here you go,” I said. “No strings attached, but if you get the opportunity to give back, remember that you owe me one.”

Some of the more experienced players seemed taken aback.

But in fairly short order, my beneficiary donated a card to me.  It was obvious to him and to everyone else that if one gained a reputation for reciprocating donations, then more donations might follow. If instead one greedily accepted donations but never repaid them, then the generosity would stop.

Other players started to make altruistic donations, too. In fact, they became commonplace. Without exception, this group of godless freethinkers were careful to repay their debts, even if they never asked for the debts in the first place. People wanted allies because even if a trade were time-delayed, not strictly obligatory, and maybe not exactly even, it still gave both parties an advantage they would not have had otherwise.

In the end, thanks to the faithful reciprocation of my friends, I won the game.

Thus did altruism emerge from selfishness, in this game as well as in life.

Zubeidat Tsarnaev and the Black Hole of Reality

Like many of you, I’ve been spellbound as the drama of the Boston Marathon bombings has unfolded. Since it took place just a few miles from my home, I have felt that I should blog something about it, but I’ve hung back until more of the facts were known.

Unfortunately, the more that has become known, the less unusual the story has become. We’ve seen so much of it before: A young man that everyone had voted least-likely-to-become-a-terrorist falls under the spell of hateful religious extremism, probably conveyed by his own brother. He blows the leg off a seven-year-old girl who had loved dancing — which somehow seems even worse than killing her eight-year-old brother along with at least two other people. While scoring in the 99th percentile for cold-blooded wickedness, he and his brother score in the 1st percentile for competence as criminals and are soon caught. All that is nothing new.

What is new, and what I’d like to muse on for a moment, is the brothers’ mother’s slow orbit around the black hole of reality — that place where all man-made falsehoods are first ripped to shreds and then compressed to a singularity of truth, whether we wish it or not. It has been both maddening and heartbreaking to watch.

Zubeidat Tsarnaev

Zubeidat Tsarnaev

Zubeidat Tsarnaev kept her distance from reality long before the Boston Marathon bombings. According to one of her spa customers, she believed that “9-11 was purposefully created by the American government to make America hate Muslims.”

After her sons were involved in a shootout with police, she told CNN correspondent Nick Walsh that her sons “were being killed because they were Muslims. Nothing else.”

Days later, according to CNN, she was still maintaining that the bombing was staged and the supposed blood was actually paint. Tellingly, she based this opinion on a video she had seen, but she had not seen any video of the actual bombing. It seems that she was staying as far from the black hole of reality as possible.

But then, in the same interview, she said of the bombing’s victims, “I really feel sorry for all of them” and repeated, “Really feel sorry for all of them.” Her voice was cracking, and so was the wall she had constructed to keep herself from reality.

Why would she feel sorry for the victims of a staged bombing, who were splattered only with paint? I think part of her knows the truth. Or as she put it, “There is something wrong.”

Is she still orbiting the black hole of reality at such a distance that it will not pull her in, or has her descent already begun? It’s too early to tell, but I suspect she has slowed below escape velocity and the black hole will soon rip her apart.

I hope it does, but not because I bear her any ill will. Quite the opposite.

(Now comes a Beagle’s Bark.)

I identify with Zubeidat Tsarnaev. She reminds me of myself during my evangelical days.

Just as she swallowed an unlikely theory from an off-the-wall video, but did not think it necessary to watch a video of the actual events, so I took the word of my fellow evangelicals on all manner of topics and did not conscientiously seek out the unfiltered opinions of my so-called opponents.

She projected her own us-versus-them mentality on the police, which caused her to misread their motives in the shootout. I, too, was prone to misread the motives of honest non-believers, chalking up their conclusions to atheistic assumptions and invoking conspiracy theories.

In fact, her claim that blood was actually paint reminds me of the claim, which I entertained but never felt comfortable with, that God created the Earth with only an appearance of great age.

And finally, her uneasy confession that “there is something wrong” is not unlike my own realization that something was amiss in evangelical Christianity, even as I struggled against the pull of godless reality.

I think Zubeidat Tsarnaev will fall into reality eventually. We don’t hear her saying things like, “My sons did not do this thing, but if they had I would be proud of them for killing infidels.” Her moral sense is not completely gone. If she were an evangelical and were confronted with Jehovah’s commands to enslave whole cities and his permission to force the most beautiful of their women into sham rape-marriages, it seems she might not be one of those who would say, “It must have been God’s righteous judgment.” I have hope for her.

Perhaps, when she discovers that the people to whom she has given her ear have been lying to her, it will be the same wake-up call for her that it was for me and she will no longer resist the gravitational pull of reality.

The process of leaving my faith did feel like being ripped apart by a black hole. But ultimately, I found I was happier as part of the singularity of reality than struggling against it.

I wish her a similar happiness.

Scratching Your Way Out of a Room

Benjamin Verdery is not only a fantastic classical guitarist, but a fabulous teacher. I once heard him use this memorable analogy to encourage a student to work on technique.

When you try to play the guitar without proper technique, you might learn to play faster or more expressively, but it will be as if you were trying to get out of this room by scratching your way through the wall, when there’s a door right over there.

Benjamin Verdery was saying, in essence, “Your body’s biomechanics work a certain way. Until you align with that reality, results will be hard to come by.”

Many people are trying to scratch their way out of rooms. When they don’t make progress, they try scratching harder rather than looking for a door. They might even berate themselves for having inadequate fingernails. Some people hope there is no door, because then all that scratching would have been for nothing.

I’m not here to criticize anyone’s favorite techniques for living — although regular readers will know what has not worked for me. Let me just encourage you: if your technique has not worked for a year, a decade or more, maybe the problem is not with your application of the technique. Maybe it’s not that you haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe you are not inadequate. Maybe you just need a new technique — one that is more aligned with the reality of your situation.

Are you having power struggles with your children? If clamping down on them has not worked, maybe clamping down harder will not work either. Instead, you could learn what it would take to earn their respect, and do that.

Has prayer not worked? Maybe it’s not your lack of faith or devotion. Maybe praying harder will not change anything. Perhaps it’s time to take action on your own.

Has talk therapy not cured your depression? Maybe you don’t need to talk more. Perhaps you are serotonin-deprived and need medication.

Do you continue to have anger issues? Maybe trying harder to stifle yourself will not to help. Perhaps you just need to look at life differently so you don’t get angry in the first place.

I’m suggesting that you give yourself a break. Don’t make life harder than it has to be. If you haven’t been able to scratch your way through the wall, maybe there’s a door.