Ignorance is Dying

Yesterday, while I was procrastinating on Facebook a news article crossed my feed about a mother in Tennessee. This mother is upset that her 7th Grade child is learning about Islam (she doesn’t appear to be upset that her child is learning about Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism as well) and decided to voice her concerns to the local school board. She feels that her child’s “personal religious beliefs were violated” by being provided an education about different spiritual beliefs and they are proud of the zeroes received on the corresponding tests.

It is easy to get angry or stereotype Tennessee as a backwards place, but there is actually one line in the article that makes me incredibly optimistic.

“Edmisten was the only parent to speak about the issue.”

One parent. We are at the point where this type of craziness in a conservative state is down to one person who is outraged enough to cause a fuss. This woman clearly does not represent most of the school district. It is angry people who take the time out of their day to scream at bureaucrats and elected officials, and most of the people in this town aren’t angry about the school curriculum, and it appears the school board is going to kind of brush this woman off (as they probably should).

In some ways, I grew up in an “ignorance is a virtue” form of Christianity. I was taught explicitly anti-science things and my house were filled almost solely with books and music by Christian authors. I even remember writing a long paragraph protesting that my science class in seventh grade had a question about evolution on it and how it was “only a theory*”. That upbringing was self-defeating, though. Science easily won out when ignorance was encouraged and I was only given a strawman defense against scientific theories. For example, I heard many times “if humans evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?”. This seemed like an airtight argument until I actually learned about evolution. When I found out that scientists don’t say that at all, what they say is that humans and monkey share a common ancestor (just like my siblings and I share a common ancestor) it shattered my beliefs on the subject and encouraged me to re-evaluate everything that I’d been told.

In addition, my “God of the gaps” (if humans don’t know the answer then the answer must be God) got smaller and smaller as those gaps were filled by scientific inquiry. Quickly I came to the conclusion that if a God exists then his followers should be focusing solely on the spiritual and not the physical. The study of “earthly things” like history, science, and economics should not be viewed through a theological lens because religion doesn’t have the tools to adequately study them. When Christian “science” and secular science conflict only one will be left standing because only one actually relies on logic and inquiry and is self-correcting.

This parent is doing her children a disservice and someday they may come to see it as brainwashing, and possibly resent her for it even if she is doing what she thinks is right. In today’s connected age you can’t fight information unless you go to dictatorial extremes. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin may be able to shut off information to their citizens, but parents in the United States cannot. If people really want their children to grow up as healthy adults they need to be open and honest about the world and not try to isolate them from dissenting opinions. If your views can’t survive exposed to light and the marketplace of ideas, then your views should probably die.

Advertisements

Star Trek

Yesterday was the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek, and man, it made me so excited to see my Facebook page light up with Star Trek love. I don’t know if many people realize this about me, but I am kind of a nerd, and I really always have been. In my school days, I was not really popular, but that was fine. My school didn’t really have “bullies” and the popular kids were actually pretty kind. I wasn’t really friends with them, but there was no animosity between the many social groups. I generally enjoyed learning and wasn’t particularly athletic. I actually really liked playing sports, particularly football, but I wasn’t really that good at it. After one year on JV, I decided to quit football because I felt like kind of a fraud, I wasn’t the type of person that should be on a school sports team so I quit. Looking back, that is a shitty reason and I wish I would have kept playing.

Anyway, Star Trek has a very special place in my heart. I remember gathering around in front of the TV with my siblings and our binder of ST: TNG Customizable Card Game cards to watch The Next Generation whenever it came on. We would identify cards in the show as they happened and feel a sense of pride when we knew some obscure fact about the plot or characters. It was more than just a show to me because it was more than just entertainment. It made me feel like there were like-minded people in the world, people who longed for exploration and adventure. It was also my only real introduction to science outside of the classroom (which was mostly stiff, boring, and textbook based). Star Trek didn’t bore me with periodic tables, it showed me what you can do with science and technology, and the ethical questions that can arise. I grew up in a relatively anti-science environment and Star Trek challenged me and encouraged me to problem solve instead of trusting things based on faith. I distinctly remember when Lt. Barclay began de-evolving because of a virus or something and I had a moment of discomfort because I was raised to believe evolution was a lie spread by Satan. To be honest, I’m not really sure why my parents let me watch it while growing up.

It was also my only real introduction to science outside of the classroom (which was mostly stiff, boring, and textbook based). Star Trek didn’t bore me with periodic tables, it showed me what you can do with science and technology, and the ethical questions that can arise. I grew up in a relatively anti-science environment and Star Trek challenged me and encouraged me to problem solve instead of trusting things based on faith. I distinctly remember when Lt. Barclay began de-evolving because of a virus or something and I had a moment of discomfort because I was raised to believe evolution was a lie spread by Satan. To be honest, I’m not really sure why my parents let me watch it while growing up.

As I work my way through Voyager I find the show still has value, even for someone in their mid-30’s. Like all good science fiction, the issues it raises are often universal and applicable to our current time and place. They are human issues that make our lives complex, challenging, and rich. Sure, the acting and writing can induce some eye rolls, and the special effects are clearly dated, but the real value of Star Trek is the universe it creates and the vision for the future. My own idealism about humanity rests, at least partly, in the potential universe shown in Star Trek. My love of a Basic Income Guarantee and my belief that science and technology can get to the point where we all have our needs and desires met without labor come from Star Trek. The words “Live Long, and Prosper” bring guidance for how to behave, as well as hope for what we can become. Maybe I’ll see the day when 3-D Printers evolve to Replicators and death is finally cured, but even if I don’t I am glad to live in a time and place where I can view human potential through Star Trek.

 

Food Science

One of the things that I love about the world we live in is how quickly we are discovering new things about the world. Amidst all the shitty politics and bullshit, there are scientific discoveries and technological innovations happening all around us. One area, in particular, has been really exciting to me… we are learning so much about how the human body works and figuring out ways to “upgrade” it. Due to my love for science and fitness I have been sharing a lot of articles about human health, both the good and the bad.

Unfortunately, as more research is done we are discovering that some things aren’t very healthy for us. I think there must be a miscommunication when I share these articles, though, because people seem to feel attacked. Take, for example, a recent article I shared that linked alcohol to all sorts of cancers. (My dietitian partner informed me that this isn’t really new news, but I had never heard it before).

When I share these articles I am not trying to tell people that they shouldn’t drink alcohol. I share them because I care about the people in my network and want them to be informed about the risks they take. They are certainly free to take those risks, but I would feel bad if I withheld information from a friend about the danger they are putting themselves in. I would like the people I love to live long, healthy lives and I want them to see their kids and grandkids grow up (or nieces and nephews for us childless people). I want them to be able to travel where they desire, have adventures, and create art, and for all those things you need to be alive.

Clearly, that desire of mine is being lost somewhere (probably because I never say it), and the response to articles about nutrition generally fall in two categories. The first response is usually something along the lines of “Oh, well, whatever, everything causes cancer”. While that might be true… everything (or mostly everything) can break down our body and bring us closer to death, I see no reason to unnecessarily speed up that process. Everything we do is a cost/benefit analysis and we make better decisions when we know the full cost. I will continue to drink beer, because the relatively small increase in cancer risk for a the pleasure of a beer is probably worth it… beer tastes good and the risk increase is small. Using that same calculus I won’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t get pleasure from it and the chance that it will cut my life short is incredibly high. Having a couple beers a week probably won’t prevent me from being at the birth of my niece’s baby, but smoking might.

The second response goes something like “I’m sure tomorrow they will say that drinking cures cancer”. Basically, scientific research is often coming up with conflicting information, therefore we should dismiss it all. Yes, research sometimes conflicts other research, that is what makes science a better institution for finding information about the physical world than religion. If research into complicated things always agreed there would probably be a problem. This argument also seems to ignore bodies of research where there is a lot of consensus. You don’t just throw out data because new information in the future might tweak it, there is a such thing as truth in the world and the scientific method is a tool to find truth. It saddens me the most when people use this argument who, otherwise, are very excited about scientific discoveries and technological advancement. We shouldn’t be hostile to new information just because it tells us the life we are living isn’t as healthy as we’d like to believe.

I think what it really comes down to is food is very personal for some people. I really have a hard time understanding this, but I am trying. Food was never important in my family, we have no shared culture around it or any sort of traditions. Food is primarily fuel for my body to function. I certainly enjoy good food over bad food, and I like it when I find tasty recipes that fulfill my nutrient needs, but if someone showed me research that lentils caused cancer I would likely reduce my consumption significantly. This may just be an area where I have a hard time understanding other people. It was very easy for me to cut out meat from my diet when I found that it was unhealthy and violated my ethics, but others have an attachment to food that goes beyond nutrition, an attachment that confuses me a bit.

The Scientific Method

One of the things that pushed me away from the religion I grew up with was the intrusion into the scientific realms. My religion tried to explain the dinosaurs, genetic diversity, the planets, geology, etc. But, when I encountered the scientific reasoning for the theories and the evidence my religion couldn’t hold up. Faith couldn’t trump evidence for these things. I’m not saying that science has all the answers at this point, and they may not ever have all the answers. There may always be a need for spirituality or religion, but more and more people are going to turn away from churches if they spend their time and energy trying to contradict science.

Anyway, I’ve occasionally heard that my feelings about science are really just “faith” in science instead of faith in god. This is a misunderstanding of what the scientific method is. I don’t read an article about evolution and have faith in the author, it is that I trust that the scientific method is the best way that we’ve come up with to understand the natural world. The scientific method has natural checks and balances that push towards truth. There are plenty of dead-ends and misunderstandings, but the general direction of scientific inquiry is towards truth.

The same can’t be said of religion where new information is not analyzed critically, instead it is suspect. Tradition and a few ancient texts are said to be the final word on truth. New understandings of the world are rejected and considered an enemy to the divine truth. When new scientific discoveries are made this is often portrayed as proof that science doesn’t know what it is doing, or that it can’t be true because things keep changing.

It isn’t the natural world that is really changing, it is our understanding of it. Take, for example, the 1977 issue of Time Magazine that discusses “Global Cooling”. This issue is often shown as “proof” that climate change is some sort of a conspiracy. Why would we call it global cooling one decade, global warming the next, and then climate change after that? Isn’t that proof that there is a secret cabal of communist scientists who want to hijack the world and establish a Marxist utopia all under the guise of saving the planet?

Well, no.

The global cooling, global warming, and climate change labels are an example of the strengths of scientific inquiry. It is science’s ability to change as new information and research becomes available. This isn’t flip-flopping, it is learning.

Now, maybe someday soon, scientific research will see that the climate change we are experiencing is a weird natural cycle that has nothing to do with humans. Or maybe research will show that it is partly to do with humans. I really don’t know, it isn’t my area of expertise (though, I tend to think it is likely that humans are having an impact on our environment). One thing science doesn’t really do is tell us what the best policy positions are to alter our environment or if we should do that even if we have the capability.

Anyway, I love science. I love that our understanding of the world changes with new information. I love that nothing is really off limits for science, at least in an ideal world. Scientists are humans and many of them are resistant to new paradigms that would overturn their life’s work. The Scientific Method is generally able to push past human desires, it eventually evolves new theories and hypothesis to explain the world, even if individual humans resist. Religion can’t do that, and it should really stop trying to push it’s method for discovering truth into the world dominated by science.

That Old Time Religion

I saw a man walking across the country carrying a cross yesterday.

Well, he wasn’t exactly carrying it, it was attached to a trailer with wheels, I guess he was technically dragging it. I am sure it was heavy though. I didn’t stop and talk to him, that type of overt religiosity makes me uncomfortable, but in some ways it makes me nostalgic as well.

I was raised in a really conservative, non-denominational Protestant, “god and country” home. The only music allowed in our house was Christian and country. In fact, I still listen to dc Talk occasionally (“Jesus Freak” still gets my feet moving and I sing along out loud). They also make me nostalgic, it reminds me of a time when my life was simpler and truth seemed clear. My ignorance didn’t survive two combat deployments and college. Overall, I am glad it didn’t survive, but it was still a time in my life that I can look fondly upon, even if the results of that time are less than ideal. The depression and loneliness I felt because of my sexuality and interests, the feeling of shame and understanding that I was going to be tortured for eternity, these were not pleasant outcomes for a belief system that is supposed to be about love and forgiveness.

I am open to religion, but the bar is really high. Any religion that I investigate needs to fill the gaps that my past Christianity couldn’t fill… primarily answering questions. In my upbringing, questions were often answered with “just have faith” or “the Lord works in mysterious ways”. These clichés were able to satisfy me as a child but couldn’t hold my attention as an adult. Also, when a religion views only one piece of literature as the only legitimate source for answers it forces them to twist the words to mean things that don’t make sense, or to rely on the above clichés when people question the authenticity. Why should I believe the miracles of the Old Testament in the Bible really happened but not the story of Beowulf or The Iliad?

Also, my upbringing put religion in places it didn’t belong. It tried to explain biology, geology, history, astronomy, physics, and every other field of study solely through the lens of the Bible. When you are faced with a Biblical interpretation of life on earth (it all fit on the ark and magically reproduced to its current levels of population and diversity in 5,000 years) and compare it to the scientific explanations it takes blind faith to believe the former. Instead of the church I grew up in admitting that some of the stories may be symbolic, I was told to just “have faith” or that there was a grand conspiracy of scientists led by Satan that were trying to trick everyone. It was ridiculous.

My religion couldn’t last, at least not in the form it started in. I’m still open to it, but I need to have answers and intellectual discussions encouraged. I don’t need a religion to have all the answers, but I do need it to be open and honest when questioned.

Maybe Nothing…

This is the second post in a series where I think about death and the afterlife. The first post was kind of an introduction, this one will cover the elimination of consciousness at death, tomorrow is about reincarnation, the fourth will be about an afterlife, and the final one will be my concluding thoughts. 

Yesterday I talked a bit about what I would like to happen to my body if I die. Basically, return me to nature, let the animals feast upon me, or my partner can do whatever the hell she wishes. I’m dead. I won’t feel anything. She can burn me, bang me, abandon me, blast me into pieces, or send me to Europa. Whatever she wants and makes her feel better, I won’t feel it because “me” is no longer a concept that applies to that body.

But what happens to our consciousness*?

I feel like there are three primary possibilities: they disappear, they move to another body, or they move to an afterlife. There are many variations of the latter two that I’ll ponder on in future posts but this post is about the first possibility, that we simply die.

Our current understanding of science and the natural world seems to argue that when we die our consciousness is eliminated with our bodies. To my knowledge there have not been any peer-reviewed studies that show our consciousness can exist outside of our bodies and that it continues to exist once our bodies die. We are stardust and to stardust we shall return.

The scientist in me loves this, but is also open to more information (as all scientists should be). It would be a fatal hubris to assume that what we know about the human experience now is end of knowledge. It is possible that we are simply unable to measure, read, or understand the spirit at this point (or maybe any point). Reality doesn’t conform to human knowledge. Sight existed long before we understood light, it is possible that consciousness exists in a state that can leave the body after death but we just don’t have the technology to view it.

That being said, I don’t think that is likely. From what I know at this point it seems likely that our consciousness dies with our body. I’d like more research though, particularly into the experiences people have had on DMT and other psychedelics that seem to open gateways in people’s minds to other dimensions and lives. But then again, I like research into all the drugs I enjoy so maybe I am biased.

Either way, the idea that after death there is nothing isn’t a scary idea. I have no reason to fear what I will experience when I die then I do to experience fear when thinking about life before I was born. If consciousness is nothing but an evolutionary side-effect it actually makes me smile a bit. 100% of my existence, that was forged in the heart of stars, will be used to provide life for other creatures and eventually be blasted around the universe. The atoms will never arrange themselves in a way that makes “me” again but it will join with other atoms to be a part of other lives and reactions.

That is immortality.

* I’ll be using the term consciousness but you could also call it a soul, spirit, or something else.

On The Spirit

Dealings of spirituality and religion are a bit difficult to me. I grew up in a Christian home but at some point along the way found it lacking. It isn’t necessarily the teachings of Christ that I found disagreeable, it is more the Church did not reflect what I saw in Christ. In addition, my upbringing denied scientific theories like evolution but did not provide any real counter-theory. I was told to just have faith, I was told “God works in mysterious ways”, I was told that evolution was “just a theory”… things that both insult the human capacity for logic and shows a complete ignorance to what a scientific theory is. They were straw men and when I was presented with evidence, logic, and the scientific method the straw men burnt easily, but the words of Galileo rang true “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

I certainly consider myself a skeptic, and by that I mean I place greater weight in objectivity and science than subjective experiences and faith. But science at this time cannot explain everything and the places where measuring objectivity is not possible (yet?) we must compile subjective experiences, look for patterns, and attempt to formulate measurable hypothesis. Still, we humans lack the ability to objectively measure spiritual experiences, and it may be that we can never measure them. No matter how much we can look into the mind it is difficult, or maybe impossible, to determine the source of spiritual experiences. They may be created and executed completely in the brain or the brain may act as a conduit for experiences coming from another dimension.

I use the term dimension in a semi-scientific way. I admit my knowledge of physics is pretty laymen but it seems it is possible that a dimension may exist in a way that it can interact with ours under certain circumstances. Meditation, psychedelic drugs, near-death, spiritual revelations, and maybe even dreams may act as gateways to another dimension. I don’t know this for a fact, but that is the point. We lack the scientific knowledge to measure and compare subjective spiritual experiences. It is possible our brains are like a water cooler where all the mechanics of dispensing water are controlled in one body, or our brains may be like a water faucet where the mechanics move outside our homes into an area that we don’t currently have access to (at least not without professional help).

The truth is, I don’t know what the spirit is or what spiritual experiences are. I think there is some truth in the spiritual practices that have woven itself within humankind. I feel (admittedly a subjective response) the spirit exists and that we can access enlightening experiences through various means. In some ways whether spiritual experiences truly exist or are simply misfiring neurons in our brain seems of little relevance if they help us live a more fulfilling and happier life. I think the mind, body, and spirit is a triad that encompasses the human experience, and each section must be exercised for complete health. I may be wrong, but in the end it really doesn’t matter to me, this balance of belief and evidence about reality helps me live a life of peace, love, and personal growth, and if there is a meaning to life that seems like a good one to me.