Friday, 27 February 2009

I Love the Taste of Love in the Morning

More holistic societies are aware of the connection between morality and the body; of how our emotions and our logic are intertwined. Job speaks of tasting "bitterness of the soul", the Psalmist calls us to "taste and see that the Lord is good". In our society with it's Greek dualistic inheritance, we seek always to divide the sayings, and thus the physical can never have an impact on the spiritual. The best it can get is a symbolic representation, such as baptism and communion in most Protestantism. And this is not even symbolism in it's original sense, participating in the referent, but rather simply an icon- in the sense of those computer images on our screens.

Thus it is encouraging to come across a study indicating that the physical reaction to immorality is very similar to the physical reaction to bad taste. It is what one would expect, if there isn't a neat division between the spiritual and the physical. Our awareness of morality should develop from both our endocrine and our nervous systems. If there is an inherent morality out there, and it isn't merely arbitrary, then it should pervade all of creation, and not only our thought patterns.

But the authors of the study seem to have gone down some odd rabbit trails, in their attempt to argue that morality is not absolute but only defined by the individual or society. Their words use phrases like "the origins of morality", rather than merely the origins of our awareness of morality. Quite obviously, it can not be proved that morality is absolute- or at least, not in the space of a single blog post. But equally, it can not be proved that morality is not. And if so, the assumptions on morality and ethics should be clearly stated by the authors of a study of morality and ethics. This is especially true when such bias is so evident. For there is nothing inherent within the discovery - that our facial reaction to bad taste is eerily similar to our facial reaction to something morally disgusting - to suggest that it was our morality that was evolving, with those that were selected against unable to be aware of the negative consequences of poison, disease, and behavior that we today describe as immoral but previously was simply dangerous. It is equally likely that it was our response to morality that was evolving, as those who were selected against were those who did not realize the negative consequences of immoral behavior.

Indeed, the study authors, in their conclusions, are comparing apples and oranges. For them, poison and disease are all too real, and we develop a response to them. For them, morality is simply something that evolved, without an appeal to Plato's Perfect Forms, and our development was coming up with this marvelously marvel notion of morality.

But if anything, our notion of morality is precisely what did not evolve. Certainly our awareness of it did, but not the morality itself. For we have to only look around our world and quickly discover that it is those who are most unjust who advance. The race in this world is to the strong, the fast, and the lier. He who cheats wins, and seldom gets caught. Various notions of the evolutionary development of altruism are quite true, but they run against the stronger cord that not playing by the rules will more often lead to success. Were morality successful in evolutionary terms, we would not so often forget it, and yet still hold it as a goal. Were it merely an arbitrary idea and not inherent in the very reality of being, we would not so often forget it and yet still believe it should be followed. A couple of years ago we found that our close cousins, the chimpanzee, have gone on hunting parties with fashioned weapons, even killing other primates with them. Their actions are immoral when they attack their own species, if they were human, and had the awareness of good and evil. As it was, their actions were completely amoral (and not immoral)- but also horrifically successful.

To succeed, go out, and sin boldly. But recognize that that nagging feeling in the back of your mind comes from centuries of evolutionary development- the awareness that there is another reality, a moral reality. And when you breach it, it tastes a bit like MSG.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Going to Church Can Cause People to Kill

A new study out of New York and BC suggests that the single greatest correlative factor between suicide bombings is regular attendance at religious gatherings. It is not devotion, or piety, or prayer, but participation in corporate worship. This was true for both Jews and Muslims. Among groups that lack traditions of suicide bombings, like Hindus and the three largest branches of Christianity, the same underlying principle was found- those who regularly attended places of worship were more likely to display parochial altruism- willingness to die for your group combined with a strong negative perception of "the other".

What am I to make of this study? Obviously, it is not accurate to say that when you attend a mosque or church you have to be concerned that someone in attendance is likely to blow themselves up or support others blowing themselves up, nor was this study suggesting that. Rather, it was stating that the best single indicator of this willingness or support was attendance at corporate worship.

There are so many questions, that remain unanswered, that we would need further study for. I want to know to what extent do good things result from this tendency, like feeding the poor. It is harder to have major social justice action when you are on your own. I'd like to know how this tendency to view the world as us vs. them, or to kill people by killing yourself, compares to membership in other corporate entities, like clubs, political groups, or the military. And I wonder to what extent this study is simply revealing one aspect of how we are more likely to get things accomplished, positive or negative, when we are part of a group. Perhaps it is that one can more easily get fired up for a cause, for good or bad, when you're part of a group- which kind of makes sense.

Perhaps the study reveals that a small subset of those who are more inclined to groups are more willing to get fanatical if they are part of a group, and those who are not inclined towards groups but are inclined towards violence, we call loners who go on shooting sprees in colleges. This could be particularly true when you consider the inherent biases towards individualism that scientists from Canada and the US would hold, as opposed to the group-think present in most of the world. Thus it may be the presuppositions of the scientists themselves that are expressed here, as individualistic Western societies tend to see less value in working with groups, and tend to fear any coherent group as a cult.

Perhaps more disturbing than the tendency to suicide oneself is the tendency to look down on other groups. It is one thing to be willing to die for your group, and perfectly understandable. It is a good thing to die for a cause greater than oneself, to do something far, far better than one has ever done before, to go to a place far, far better than one has ever known. In Christianity, it is to follow in the way of its founder, and to do it with love of one's enemies and murderers, without harming another- this is the way of true martyrdom.

But when this laudable attitude is combined with hatred or mere dislike of another group, it is a dangerous attitude indeed. It may therefore imply that any religion or group that does not have embedded in its very core a love for enemies - perhaps, if the Parable of the Good Samaritan is any indication, an even greater love for one's enemies than one's friends- is inherently dangerous. For such a belief system, that values one's group over that of the other, when combined with the power and motivation the group can create, is a dangerous entity in this world. Of such a way lies the Crusades, countless jihad, and every nationalism the world has berthed.

And perhaps we need to pay attention to the aspect of prayer. For the study juxtaposed those who prayed regularly (as a definition of fervor in religion), with those who regularly attended religious services. Thus those who pray regularly did not correlate with support for suicide bombers; attendance at the mosque regularly did. And perhaps for some, the rituals of corporate worship in any faith come to supplant the intimate, direct relationship in prayer, something possible individually or corporately. The study didn't measure the amount of non-ritualistic intimate prayer of those who do or do not attend public services. But it is this direct relationship with God that allows us to learn to depend on him, and to be able to forgive the insults and attacks of others, most notably by definition our enemies. It is this dependence that allows us to know God's love for us, and therefore to truly love the other with the love that God had for them before the world began.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Tales from the Lorax

Long ago, it was told to us that the care for the land was intimately connected to the care for the other. How we treat another human can not be divorced with how we treat the environment. Saving the land is saving the poor; ending war is protecting nature itself. We see this in the call to the Year of Jubilee, in which the Israelites were called to depend on God by letting the land lie fallow every 7th year. Incidentally, this allowed the land to rejuvenate, and provided a fuller crop in subsequent years- a practice we now know as sound farming. This was a time connected with a restoration of justice, and a return to equity- a practice we now know as socialism. In other places the prophets command to not

add house to house
and join field to field
until there is no more room
and you alone are left in the land.

There was an awareness that greed can become unbounded, and lead to devastation. In a culture that was intensely corporate, so unlike our modern American individualistic society, the concept of being left alone was horrible indeed. It would come about because some had desired "modernity", cities and human construction, taking over nature, and acquiring more and more for themselves at the expense of the masses of the poor. And this was because, as far as we know, the Year of Jubilee was never applied, save perhaps once, under King Josiah. God's people ignored his teachings on equality, poverty, and the environment. And when people refused to give up their land, those with wealth and power would take by force what was not freely given, as predicted by the prophet Samuel.

Years later, another prophet, and more than a prophet, a leader in the Early Church, James, again tied in the concern for the poor with war and strife, as he pointed out that fighting comes from coveting, in turn coming from desiring with wrong motives- just before he has perhaps the strongest condemnation of the rich to be found in the Bible, whom he argues inherently gain their wealth on the backs of the oppressed, through exploitation and murder.

Now we find studies to back up these basic principles. Conservation International has recently found that most of the world's hotspots directly correlate with the areas of the greatest war and killing. Hotspots are places with extreme biodiversity and extreme endangerment- they have a disproportionate number of unique species, that are disproportionately likely to soon go extinct. 81% of major human conflicts in the last fifty years took place in these hotspots.

An intriguing corollary to this is the suggestion that perhaps we innately prefer the areas with greater diversity, hearkening back to something in our ancient, more natural roots before cities, and thus tend to fight over what we don't have, but all want. There may be an evolutionary mandate to desire these spots, but there is a Biblical warning for why we fight over them. Contrary to groups like the Quiverfull Movement, recently highlighted on NPR, the Biblical mandate is not simply to always have more children. For another aspect of I Isaiah's warning on adding land to land until there is no room left is that we can produce too much for the land to sustain- as has happened in the areas where species are most threatened, and the areas of greatest warfare on the planet. When this happens, we desire more for us, and our offspring, and those in our group, be that nationalism or religious bigotry. The easiest way to achieve this is by manipulating others to give us more, as James warns of. When that doesn't work, force of arms is often very convenient.

And the result of all this is always foremost the death of others: the troops of one's own country, the enemy, and the innocent civilians. This is always by far the greatest tragedy of war. But we now see, what we should have always seen, that warfare and murder also leads to the deaths of countless other species of animals and plants. And since we don't exist in a biological vacuum, but are intimately connected with the rest of the planet for our very emotional and physical survival, the continuation of war could lead directly to our own extermination as a species.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Unintelligent Designer

Scientists have been able to create a model of what our Australopithecine ancestor's heads looked like- and in particular their jaws. They've found that our ancestor-cousins had much stronger jaws than we do.

I know everything is a trade-off. I know that if they had really strong jaws, then there was probably some detriment too. It's not like evolution dictates that things get better and better, but rather that every organism just gets continually adapted to changing environments. I still want those strong jaws that could crush large hard nuts.

I wish I didn't have lower back problems. But I know I must, as all humans do with age, because I walk on two legs. I know my back works better for a four-legged animal, but evolution works with the material it has. If I walked on four legs, then it's unlikely that I would have developed the intelligence I have to post blogs, for it is believed that intelligence was a byproduct of being able to see for greater distances and judge distance when standing on two legs in the savanna- not to mention the ability to use tools because my hands are freed from walking. If I had a narrower stance, then the vertebrate I have would work just fine on two legs, thank you. But then women would have a narrower stance. (Sure, women could have lower back problems only. But 1) that would be sad and unfair, and 2) evolution works with what it gets.) If women had a narrower stance, then they would be unable to fit our rather bulbous heads through the birth canal. If we had smaller heads, they could do it, on two legs, without back troubles. They could even have fewer birth pains, for they could keep us in longer, and allow us to develop further, as our head wouldn't be too large for the birth canal upon emergence. The trade-off of intelligence is so great, that our heads are not only too big to fit through a narrow birth canal, but we have to be born neotenously, born with fewer developed features than most animals, including other primates. That means we are dependent for post-natal development on our parents, to a ridiculous degree not seen in other mammals or primates.

If God is a smart God, could he have created us with all of these features? Could he have found a way to have us walk on two legs, be smart, give birth without pain, have short gestation periods, have short post-natal development, have working back bones without pain, and yes, most importantly, super strong jaws capable of crushing hard nuts? Yes, of this I have no doubt. The God I believe in could have done that all. So why didn't he? Why didn't he make us with bodies that work better than they do now, with cooler add-on features?

I have forced to conclude he is stupid. He made mistakes. If, that is, I believe he created using a snap-your-fingers-with-a-brilliant-flash-of-light style, like Q of Star Trek. And I just have trouble believing that a stupid God rules the cosmos. If however, I believe that God created using the process of evolution, then suddenly everything falls into place. Evolution is an incredibly beautiful and complex theory, and it would take the truly divine- and truly intelligent- to come up with such a process. And evolution doesn't create novel structures and processes; it works with the material it has, using work-arounds, to develop new features that are in truth new ways of using old features. And I have the confidence that one day, we will receive just such a body as here described, when we receive our new, fully physical bodies, made like Jesus' post-resurrection body, able to do far more than we can now imagine, where there will no longer be any pain or suffering.

So, the choice is: A smart God, using evolution, or a Literal Creationist God, who is rather stupid. You decide.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

What's a half billion years among friends?

This past week, astronomers found the closest extrasolar planet to the size of Earth. It's only twice as big as us, which is significant, because you need something about our size to develop life, and not simply life on an orbital moon. Unfortunately, it's also so close to it's star that its year is only twenty days, and therefore its surface temperature is a balmy 1000°C- so basically a planet of liquid magma. It doesn't matter at that temperature if you've got lots of water; no life is going to develop there.

But I started to think. It wasn't so long ago that our planet was of a similar temperature and composition. Well, 4.5 bya (billion years ago). I suppose that is a stretch of time. And we were able to cool off because there is such a great distance between us and our star; the planet Co­RoT-Exo-7b doesn't have that option. (Yes, extrasolar astronomers have no imagination.) But if it did- if it were further out- it wouldn't be a planet so different than ours, give or take 4 billion years.

We think we are so special, because we have all this life, and advanced life forms to boot. And we are special. Even if life is found elsewhere, it's not everywhere, as our own solar system shows us. But that doesn't give us the right to symbolically lord it over other planets, anymore than we in America can look down at a fledgling democracy in Iraq, forgetting that our government in our first thirteen years collapsed because it was unworkable. Our planet went through great initial turmoil, with some 500 million years of magma and cooling down, before there could even be the beginnings of an inkling for life.
This is why I never think that life itself is all that amazing. Recently, I looked at some stromatolites so close I could reach and touch them. These are fossils of algal mats from 3.5 bya. That means, it took only half a billion years from molten lava to the first life forms. And since life is notoriously difficult to fossilize, life probably began significantly earlier than 3.5 bya- that's just the earliest date we have for fossils. It took another billion years to get anything with a nucleus in it. It took another 1.3 billion years before we could get anything multicellular. It was another 700 million years after that (500 mya) before we got the diversity of multicellular life and phyla that we have today, and then some. If we're looking at the time it takes, the development of life itself is actually the easiest thing in the world. It is getting something multicellular that's difficult, and even more difficult than that, a cell with a nucleus, guiding all the internal workings. The Intelligent Design advocates are barking up the wrong tree. I need no Designer, Intelligent or otherwise, to make life. That's the easy part. It's the development of a nucleus that's difficult. It's the instant creation of a multicellular organism that would be impressive. That is what I must conclude, in that evolution took so long to form them. Complexity is an inherent function of time and natural selection.
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.