Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.

JWH

22 Dumb Fantasies I’ve Tried to Believe

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fantasyland by Kurt AndersenHave you been depressed since last November? Does the institutionalization of anti-science horrify you? Do you feel irrational politicians have hijacked our country? Does your soul ache because liberal compassions are under siege from conservative prejudices? Do you wonder if our collective mind has blown a gasket? Then you need to read Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen. This book will not solve our problems, but it does explain how our nation has been crap-believing crazy for five centuries. Fantasyland is the most entertaining, informative, and comforting nonfiction book I’ve read in years. Fantasyland soothes my America-is-collapsing anxiety by reporting on all the dumbass fantasies Americans have embraced since Jamestown.

Because I can’t cast any first stones, reading this book makes me want to list all the stupid concepts I’ve tried to embrace in the last sixty years. We’re all suckers for fantasylands. We all hope to find saviors that will rescue us from our mundane lives. The desire to better ourselves, to create, to build an ideal world is one of the admirable qualities of our species. However, to live a life of delusion is sad.

Fantasyland proves hope for a better future depends on getting clean with reality. Recognizing we have a fantasy addiction is the first step. We need to simplify the serenity prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference” to “I seek wisdom to know the difference between reality and fantasy.”

As I read Fantasyland I constantly used it to condemn the conservatives for ruining our society with their delusions. However, I have my own delusions, we all do. I thought it might be fun to confess the history of my personal fantasylands. This inspired many questions as I wrote this essay we should consider.

  1. Should we lie to children, especially during their formative years, even if it’s in fun?
  2. At what age, if any, is make-believe safe?
  3. Should schools teach how to discern fantasy from reality?
  4. Does the Constitution protect us from other people’s delusions and fantasies?
  5. Do people have a right to believe anything they want?
  6. How do we teach history to convey the lessons of failed fantasies?
  7. Is fantasy in books, television, and movies a cause of our personal delusions?
  8. Aren’t most fantasies promoted by people trying to make money or at least validate their own delusions or egos?

An Abbreviated History of My Fantasies

Looking backward, I realize books often sold me on a new fantasyland. We seldom originate our own fantasies. As Kurt Andersen reports in Fantasyland, America was created by people with either a fantasy for finding gold or a fantasy for establishing a religious utopia. Evidently today, we have a greater abundance of fantasies to choose from, especially with mass media and the internet inspiring us. I wonder, without all our fantasies would this country be quiet and dull – or would it?

The Age of Magic (My Early Years)

#1 – Easter Bunny

I doubt the Easter Bunny is my first fantasy belief, but I’m listing it first because it’s the most embarrassing, even for a little kid. I can’t believe I ever believed a large rabbit went around hiding chocolate bunnies and colored hens’ eggs. Damn, I must have been a gullible toddler.

#2 – The Tooth Fairy

Okay, I was old enough to lose teeth, I should have been skeptical that any creature would pay a quarter for a rotten tooth. I can barely remember when this happened. I hope I actually didn’t believe what my parents were telling me, and that all I wanted was that change under my pillow.

#3 – Santa Claus

I was a total dumbass for the guy in the red suit. I remember being red face hot when a little girl put me down for being so stupid as to believe in Santa Claus. In my defense, I started first grade a year earlier than I should, so all the other kids were a year older than me. But still, I should have thought this through logically, there were plenty of clues.

#4 – Oz and Magic

I discovered the Oz books by L. Frank Baum when I was ten. I had been watching the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz since I was four. Oz was a fantasy world with magic that I wanted to exist. I have read there was a period when American librarians banned Oz books because they felt Oz books gave children unrealistic expectations about life. In my case, they were dead on.

#4 – Jesus/God

If parents really want kids to accept Jesus and God as the literal truth, they shouldn’t tell us about #1-3 first. It only sets us up to be skeptical about all invisible beings. My road to atheism began at age 11 when I got Baptized and I didn’t see the light. It totally confused me when Christians said one thing in church but did the opposite Monday through Saturday. I became a complete atheist by the 8th grade.

This ends my period of wanting to believe in magic. Maybe it’s something all kids want. I find it strange that the most fundamentalist of Christian believers reject the concept of magic when Bible stories are full of magic. God created the Earth with words. My rejection of magic was so strong I rejected all fantasy stories in favor of science fiction. It wasn’t until my fifties that I was able to enjoy fantasy novels like Harry Potter just for fun.

The Age of Science (Junior High)

#5 – Science Fiction

Science fiction was supposed to be the opposite of fantasy. When I was young I believe all the classics themes of science fiction were theoretically possible. Over the years I’ve slowly become a disbeliever to many of them, like faster-than-light travel, time travel, galactic empires, brain downloading, scientific immortality, etc. I still cling to intelligent robots or AI machines with conscious minds will be built someday.

#6 – Becoming an Astronaut

By the 8th grade I had exchanged religion for science fiction. This led me to an array of beliefs that would take me the rest of my life to realize were irrational. The first, the belief I would grow up and work in space took a long time to get over. Back in the 1960s, I was totally in awe of NASA and faithfully followed Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Sputnik went up just before I started Kindergarten and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just after I graduated the 12th grade. I had even gone to watch Apollo 8 launch Christmastime 1968, during my senior year. Sometime in my high school years, I learned astronauts had to have 20-20 vision, and I was a four-eyed geek with thick lenses. I still fantasized that science could fix my eyes, or NASA would eventually hire people with glasses. After reading Tom Wolfe’s famous book, I realized I never had the right stuff, and never would. It galled me when rich people started buying their way to space, but if I’m honest with myself, even if I was a billionaire I would never leave Earth. Space travel is just too inconvenient and uncomfortable for me.

#7 Becoming a Scientist

Probably the greatest regret of my life is not becoming a scientist. This was not an impossible dream – theoretically. However, even though I took biology, chemistry, and physics in high school, I just couldn’t devote myself to those subjects and work hard. Nor could I apply myself to math. I eventually got through calculus, but only with a half-ass effort. I even went to a tech school majoring in computer science in 1971, but I never could commit to studying hard. I wanted to have fun. I hated the classroom. One of the dumbest fantasies I had about myself involved being a disciplined scholar of science. I was always more science fiction fan than a scientist. Being successful at any pursuit requires hard work, concentration, and grit. My biggest fantasy in my life has been believing I could make myself acquire those qualities.

#8 – The Final Frontier

Instead of believing in heaven like most folks growing up in the south, I believed mankind’s was destined to travel across the solar system and out into the galaxy. That was my teenage religion. For most of my life, I believed colonizing space was our species purpose in existence. I’m now an atheist to that idea. We might travel to Mars or a few other places in the solar system, and even build colonies on the Moon and Mars, but I doubt much will come of it. Going to the stars is a fantasy for humans. I currently believe robots are destined to be interstellar travelers, but that too might be a fantasy.

The Counter Culture (High School and Early College Years)

#9 – Hippies and the Counter Culture

I remember in 1967 after reading about the march on the Pentagon standing at my school bus stop arguing with my longhair buddies about how the counter-culture was going to revolutionize America. In 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and The Rolling Stone magazine started defining a new fantasyland future for me. It also introduced me to Jack Kerouac, who drew me backwards into an older fantasyland.

#10 – Expanding My Mind with Drugs

The 1960s had another impact on me. Besides science fiction and NASA, I loved rock music and drugs. So did many in my age cohort. I was influenced by Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert and believed psychedelic drugs were the doors of perception. I sought transcendence with chemicals. I wanted them to take me as far as John Lilly claimed they took him, out into the galaxy to meet other beings – see The Programming and Metaprogramming of the Human Biocomputer. Yeah, if you mix belief in science fiction with acid it produces some far out fantasies, but really no different from mixing religion and faith.

#11 – The Beats and On the Road

I was completely romanced by Jack Kerouac and his on-the-road philosophy. I started hitchhiking around Miami when I was in high school, and continued when I went to college in Memphis. I did two short trips across states, one with my friend Connell. I learned I preferred the comforts of home. However, to this day, I still enjoy reading Kerouac. I see him as a tragic figure who followed many paths I wanted to follow but didn’t because I was either too scared or too smart. Kerouac was my father-figure substitute. My dad and Jack were horrible alcoholics that died within months of each other, both still in their forties. If I had gotten only my father’s genes that would have been my fate. I have a huge psychic connection with Kerouac.

#12 – Becoming Bob Dylan

Another absurd fantasy involved buying a guitar and harmonica and teaching myself to play and write music. This is an absurd fantasy because I can’t carry a tune, or even remember the words to favorite songs I’ve heard hundreds of times. I’m sure most kids have rockstar/sportstar/moviestar/writer/artist type fantasies. Probably every kid dreams of being famous for something. Fame is possible, certainly more possible than dying and going to heaven. Sadly, fame comes to about as many people as those winning big jackpots in Lotto.

#13 – Communes

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s the idea of intentional communities began spreading through the counter culture. I loved the idea, and had brief stints in two communal groups. I quickly learned I loved privacy, personal possessions, and having my own way. This was a very short-lived fantasy, but it still affects me. I now dream of living in a high-rise retirement community where all my friends each have an apartment.

#14 – Back to Nature

After realizing I wasn’t suited for group living I dreamed of buying my own land and escaping the rat race. I just didn’t want to join the 9-to-5 world. My bibles were Mother Earth News, Five Acres and Independence, and The Whole Earth Catalog. Several of my buddies had this dream too, but after several failures at handy crafts, gardening, and fixing machinery, reality taught me something different. I loved Henry David Thoreau, but I only read Walden and not his biography. I should have. The back to nature fantasy hadn’t worked for him either. This fantasy still returns to me occasionally, like the other night when I watched the beautiful documentary, Off the Grid.

#15 – Carlos Castaneda

I loved these books that were supposed to be anthropological. Even though I gave up Christianity, I was still gullible to other religious ideas. I figured there might be some truth in old spiritual studies. Castaneda mixed sacred drugs and the wisdom of indigenous people, and that had the appeal of promising ancient wisdom. I learned a lot, but mostly the wisdom of what to avoid.

#16 – Hinduism and Ram Das

Be Here Now really hooked me. Ram Das (aka Richard Albert) convinced me to open my mind to Hinduism. I even read The Bhagavad Gita, took up yoga, joined some New Age groups with Hindu teachers, and read a bunch of books about the sacred literature of India. I just never could believe. I tried.

#17 – Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts

I had been reading Alan Watts since I started reading Jack Kerouac. Ram Das further encouraged me to accept Buddhism. I liked Zen Buddhism because it seemed the least magical/metaphysical of all religions. I still admire Zen and meditation for their anti-bullshit methods of perceiving reality, but Buddhism has its fundamental side too, that can be just as dogmatic, and miracle driven as Christianity. Theoretically, I believe a reality-based religion is possible, but so far I haven’t found one.

#18 – Spiritualism, Channeling Seth

For a brief period, I read books about communicating with other beings by mediums like Jane Roberts. My science fictional fantasies were susceptible to alien beings communicating with us through other dimensions. John Lilly promoted this idea, and he was a scientist (although zonked out on drugs) and the great science fiction philosopher of the 1930s, Olaf Stapledon, also promoted these ideas. I soon rejected astral worlds because they were too inconsistent.

#19 – New Age Psychologies

Back in the 1970s there was almost a new psychology of the month coming out of California. I wanted to go and try things like EST, Rolfing, primal screaming, etc. I might have been converted if I could have gotten to Los Angles, but I didn’t. I just read the books, joined a local New Age community and subscribed to New Age Magazine. Like spiritualism, I gave up hope on these therapies because there were too many of them that offered conflicting truths.

My Work Years

By the end of the 1970s I got into microcomputers, and spent all my time thinking about computers. For the next 36 years I was preoccupied with being married, hanging out with friends, working, computers, science fiction, music, movies, television, and other down-to-earth pursuits. I read lots of nonfiction books, and slowly began developing more mature philosophies about life. However, I eventually learned of other fantasylands I had tried to find.

#20 – Romance/Sex/Love

Over the years I realized our society is gaga over romantic love. Love stories program us for romantic fantasylands. Gender stereotypes and sexual desires cause us to see each other in very unreal ways. It’s very hard not to objectify the people we want sexual. All these desires lead us to countless fantasylands.

#21 – Political Solutions

We all have fantasyland beliefs on how to solve our political problems. I used to believe we could come to a rational agreement on how to govern society. That’s a huge fantasy. I keep hoping it’s not, but all the evidence says it is.

#22 – We Can Solve Our Big Problems

We have all the knowledge and technology we need to save the planet, but the reality is human nature won’t let us use that knowledge and technology. We all fantasize that humans have always survived so we always will. I think that’s our most dangerous fantasy. It’s a shame that two-thirds of us are deluded by childlike belief in a heavenly father. It keeps us from growing up and taking responsibility. It’s a shame that two-thirds of us believe lying to preserve personal beliefs is wiser than accepting the wisdom of science and giving up those beliefs.

Finding Reality

If we study our fantasylands, we’ll see we’re all looking for place to exist that rejects reality. We’re an adaptable species that can live in a variety of environments. We’re also clever beings that can adapt to any environment for our physical needs. Our failure comes from trying to pretend reality is something that matches our mental needs. Our superpower is the ability to delude ourselves. Our brains have countless cognitive skills to paint over reality, deny evidence, and to allow us to see our beliefs as real. It’s probably a survival mechanism, a way to cope as individuals. But it means we fail to cooperate in our shared reality by agreeing on its actual details.

JWH

 

 

Is There Any Hope for the Future?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A friend of mine recently posted to her Facebook that her world was rocked when she attended a lecture by Rev. Dr. William Barber who is leading a moral movement to repair the breaches in our society. I assume Laurie found hope in the idea we can save ourselves by creating a new moral order. Even though I’m an atheist, I’m all for this. The trouble is our society is too fractured. Is it even possible to put it back together again? I’ve recently wondered if there is any kind of movement that everyone could embrace and find agreement? I figured it would have to be as powerful as Christianity was in its first four centuries — and yet work with non-Christians and non-believers.

How can we find common ground? Everyone talks about America being politically polarized into conservatives and liberals, but I believe there are far more divisions than that cracking up our society. If every group identity is going to demand society conform to their narrow vision we are doomed. How can we find common ground when so many different viewpoints want to dominate making the rules? Instead of seeking cooperative compromises they all fight to impose their view while demeaning everyone else’s.

In small, homogenous societies, social coherence is found with shared morality. We live in a vast, heterogeneous society with countless ethical/moral visions which makes having shared values almost impossible. In the past, we all tried to agree on some social conventions such as etiquette, acceptable public behaviors, and abiding the laws. Such efforts are almost universally ignored now.

Our greatest obstacle to finding social consensus is defining reality. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise” is how the apostle Paul began the divide between religion and science by attacking what he called the “empty logic of the philosophers.” Several hundred years later, St. Augustine continued with “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity . . . It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”

The-Closing-of-the-Western-Mind-by-Charles-Freeman

I got these quotes from The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman. They explain perfectly how and why modern believers deny science. The faithful intuitively understand faith is threatened by science. It’s why Christianity embraced Plato and not Aristotle when they discovered the Greeks. It’s why conservatives have a never-ending guerrilla war with education working to undermine K-12 and higher education. They deny the results of science by denying science.

Is it even possible to find a common morality sharable by the sacred and the secular? We can’t even agree murder is evil. How can Christians embrace stand-your-ground laws, gun carrying permits, and AR-15s in light of the Sermon on the Mount? It’s strange that godless liberals support diversity, a concept that St. Paul brought to Christianity when many modern Christians reject it today. Not only is our secular society fractured into countless pieces, but so is Christianity. If believers in a single divine authority can’t agree how can secular society?

The old saying claims money is the root of all evil. I think it’s truer than ever. Money promotes self-interest, and self-interest promotes justifying the acquisition of money by any means. Our plutocratic society has escalated lying to the supreme tool of the greedy. Wealthy people and corporations have learned that lying pays big dividends. A great book that makes that point is The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway.

There is a war on science, knowledge, expertise, and intellectualism. The greedy have aligned themselves with the faithful to attack science, and they are winning the war. We can never achieve a universal morality if half the population believes the end justifies the means, thus rationalizing lying. The age of fake news and endless assaults on journalism will never stop before society collapses. I sometimes wonder if the goals of the radical right are to destroy society so they can start over fresh.

There is no hope for any moral movements if we all can’t agree to stop lying. We all need to accept that science is the only tool we have for verifying reality. Science was invented to work across cultures and weed out subjective bias. It is an extremely effective tool for explaining the objective reality we all live in. We must accept that any subjective religion, philosophy, or opinion can’t be a basis for defining what is true. Religion has two choices. It can embrace science or reject it. Religion will strengthen itself if it accepts science, even if science denies it’s metaphysical assumptions. The real value of religion is creating shared values and stable communities — heaven on Earth rather than silly promises in exchange of silly declarations of beliefs.

The greedy are currently using religion to attack science to protect their wealth. The greedy have aligned with the faithful who are also attacking science to defend ancient memes created by primitive folks thousands of years ago. There is a logical synergy to their union but if it succeeds it will destroy our current civilization. Thus, greed is corrupting modern Christianity. I find it hard to accept the faithful who claim the moral high ground when Mammon is their ally.

I don’t know how they can assert America is a Christian nation when our society isn’t even close to resembling the sayings printed in red in their bibles. I believe Jesus tried to teach social action that has more in common with the Democratic party than the Republican. To me, the only valid analysis of Christian philosophy comes from what Jesus said. Everything else said in his name or about him is corrupt. Read The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar to understand what I mean, or the books of Bart D. Ehrman.

I believe our only hope is to get the faithful and faithless to agree on common secular morality. This is what the Founding Fathers intended when they created freedom of religion. Because religious beliefs are infinite in variety they need to stay out of politics and remain personal. We need laws and common morals that protect everyone equally. We need to ignore the politics of special interest groups that want special treatment for the few.

We need to agree that science is the only arbiter of explaining reality, promote universal quality education, develop a set of ethics that all agree on which protects both people, animals, the plant world, the environment, that develops a sustainable society. What we need is worldwide Constitution and Bill of Rights for everyone in the 21st century. We need to protect the poor and helpless, but allow the ambitious to succeed without collectively destroying the planet.

The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

I’ve read two articles this week that suggests this won’t happen. Both are about the war on science and knowledge. The first is Bill Moyers dialog with Joan Scott at Salon, “In the Trump age, an embolden attack on intellectuals.” And this older article at The Federalist by Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise” which later became the book, The Death of Expertise.

Hope involves believing people can change. Since we haven’t for two hundred thousand years, why expect the human race to get its shit together at the last moment to avoid an apocalypse of our own making? We could save ourselves if we weren’t so greedy. Unfortunately, we live in a civilization where greed is the foundation.

JWH

 

Are You An Auto-Brainwasher?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 22, 2017

There is an extreme condition known as the Anton-Babinski syndrome where blind people believe they can see. It’s a visual variation of Anosognosia, where a person with a disability is unaware of their disability. Anosognosia covers a range of delusions dealing with the body, senses, memory, and language. There is a cognitive related syndrome called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where low-ability individuals suffer from superiority illusions. (I can’t help think of Donald Trump when reading that article.) Quoting Wikipedia, here are the essential qualities of the D-K effect:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to accurately gauge skill in others
  • recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill

I believe we all fool ourselves. But how far do we go? Are some people auto-brainwashers? Anyone who has read books by Oliver Sacks knows how powerful a brain is at fooling its own mind. I highly recommend you read the articles linked to above, and then ask yourself: Am I fooling myself?

brainwashing

This has very powerful implications. What if you think another person is in love with you and they are not? What if you think you are great at your job and you are not? What if you believe you’re writing the world’s greatest novel and you’re not? What if you think you are brilliant, sexy, funny, and compassionate and you are not? Many people are crushed by self-doubts, but maybe just as many people are brainwashed by over-confidence and delusions.

Take climate change deniers. They believe they know the truth, even though they oppose armies of scientists with PhDs, using trillions of dollars worth of supercomputers, space satellites, rockets, airplanes, drones, ships, submarines, monitoring stations, balloons, and other scientific resources. Are they any less deluded than blind people claiming they can see?

Any individual who thinks they can solve any of the world’s major problems is absolutely deluded. Our reality is intensely complicated. To assume we understand anything clearly is delusional. A reasonable amount of self-doubt is healthy. Too much can be crippling, yet we need enough for humility.

The trouble with being human is we make up stories to explain a limited set of facts. This is called the narrative fallacy. I can’t find a single article that explains it, but the book, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is where I first heard the concept. If a noise wakes you in the middle of a night you can’t stop yourself from imagining scenarios for what caused that noise. From burglars, falling tree limbs, to raccoons, you have to think of something to explain the noise, even if the explanation is wrong. And generally, it is.

This is how we brainwash ourselves. Narrative fallacies lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect if you don’t do a lot of fact-checking. The reason why fake news is so successful is it often fits into people’s narrative fallacy storylines.

Science is our cognitive tool where we statistically study reality to look for consistency. We can only trust evidence when it’s overwhelming. We can only trust evidence when a majority of other people collaborate that evidence with further scientific research. But we are easily fooled by masses who have fooled themselves with auto-brainwashing. Their claims appear to be consistent evidence – but consistent opinions do not equal consistent evidence.

One of the purposes of Zen Buddhism is to deprogram our auto-brainwashing. If you can get your inner observer to back away from its attachments to thoughts it is possible to see how we auto-brainwash ourselves.

My old friend Connell and I have been talking about auto-brainwashing lately. Terms like Dunning-Kruger aren’t very effective, or memorable, so I’ve started using the phrase auto-brainwashing. Once we accept that a concept exists and have a good label for it, it’s possible to see it in action. With the idea of auto-brainwashing in mind, study yourself and your friends.

What do we see that’s not there. What’s there that we don’t see?

JWH

Information Overload and Getting Old

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I was cleaning out old magazines and stopped to read about Empress Theodora in The New York Review of Books. Evidently much of history about Theodora comes from ancient gossip, and a new book puts things right. The past is like today. Procopius, an ancient writer we use to remember Theodora, would have loved Twitter and shaming. Trying to get an accurate picture of Byzantine court life, politics and actual events is extremely difficult. Real history is information overload, and most of accepted history are Tweets.

information-overload

Here’s the thing, I’m suffering from a monstrous hangover caused by information overload. I want to know everything and can’t. I don’t know why read magazines anymore, especially ones like The New York Review of Books, where their essays are comprehensive, written by extreme experts, that make me think I’m completely uneducated. Reading one issue feels like I’ve learned more history than all I studied in K-12 schools. And it hurts. Often I can only read one essay before my head seems like a fission bomb reaching critical mass.

But if I stop trying to learn, living feels like killing time watching television while waiting to die. I can’t win either way. I’m starting to wonder if internet reading isn’t shorting out my neural pathways. Mostly I headline graze. There’s got to be some kind of happy median between Ph.D. scholar and Tweet view of every topic.

Generally when I feel this way, I return to science fiction, a cozy little artificial reality I discovered in my youth. I used to think the science fiction universe was small enough to comprehend, but in the last week, I’ve discovered inflationary events have expanded it well beyond my limits of observation. Now I understand why people dwell on highly focused specialties. Being a generalist is impossible. That also explains why the human race is too stupid to survive. Our brains are too tiny to comprehend even a vague model of larger reality. Our politicians think in sound bites because that’s the limit of their ability. We disagree with them because our 140 character capacity sees the same reality differently.

Part of my overload agony comes from growing older and sensing my brain slowing down. I hate giving up on keeping up. Yet, I also realize to survive aging I must jettison what I can’t mentally carry. I have to discover a practical diet of information consumption. I need Marie Kondo to declutter my mind. And I need to stop beating myself up because I can’t lift knowledge I once easily pressed.

Dirty Harry revealed exquisite wisdom when he said, “A man must know his limitations.”

Since I’m retired I assume I have all the time in the world, so I should be able to keep up. But it doesn’t work that way. Every new fact requires time to digest. If I don’t think about what I’m learning I forget it immediately. And even when I do contemplate new insights, it appears my brain is erasing something old to squeeze in something new. I not getting ahead anymore. Reading an essay from The New York Review of Books gives the illusion I’m learning something significant, but it’s going to be gone after I go to sleep tonight. I hate that. I truly hate that. I’m living in The Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.

Currently, I can comfortably manage one book, one audiobook and two or three documentaries a week. I just can’t make myself finish magazine articles anymore, or even read longer news reports on the web. I graze web pages. I’m not sure if internet reading is good for me. I’ve learned it’s better to spend my mental energy on fewer topics. I waste too much time chasing too many subjects. Web surfing is a very pleasant diversion, letting me think that I’m keeping up with the world, but I’m fooling myself to believe I’m actually learning anything.

JWH

Explaining Reality With More Than One Book

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What are the minimum number of books you’d have to read to get a good overview of reality? Would they all be science books, or would we need philosophy, history, mathematics or even religious texts to go beyond what experimental results can’t cover?

There are billions of people on this planet who explain existence with the help of just one book. These sacred works have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, well before science and scholarship. It’s quite understandable to want just one manual, but is this world explainable in words? Science experiments offers an alternate explanation to ontological questions, but requires reading a library of books to understand. That might be why billions stick to their single volume guides.

On the Origin of Species

Is there a single science book that can compete with The Bible, Quran, Tanakh, Tao Te Ching, Rig Veda, Diamond Sutra, etc.? Does science even try to give one book believers what they want? A book on cosmology or biology explains aspects of reality but without telling people how to live. People who live by just one book, read for guidance, not explanations. They want the world to be easily explained, fair and just. The trouble is science splendidly explains how reality works in tremendous detail, but offers no guidance how to live. We followers of science are left to find our own purpose, because science clearly shows everything in this reality is a product of impartial statistical events.

Do people choose one book solutions because reality is overwhelming, preferring simple myths instead?

How many science books would a person of faith have to read before they could understand the existential nature of their lives? Because believers are taught from an early age to believe in their single books, their non-scientific views are deeply ingrained in their minds, and hard to reprogram. Apparently, anything we learn as children sticks with us, and is very hard to erase. If children were taught Darwin at an early age, and their one book was On the Origin of Species, would the world be psychologically different?

Few scientists understand the actual science of things beyond their narrow specialty. If everyone had to read the original research of all the discoveries of science, we wouldn’t have much time for anything else. Most supporters of science understand reality through popular science, which is only an approximation of real science. Our knowledge about reality is collective knowledge. People who argue against evolution are really arguing against millions of books and research papers.

I once bought On the Shoulders of Giants by Stephen Hawking, which reprints the original scientific writings of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, but I could not read it—at least for long. If I devoted my life to it, I could probably understand this book after a few decades of trying.

What would happen if schools showed documentaries that recreated all the great science, mathematics and engineering experiments of history, so that little kids saw how people discovered details of reality for the first time? Would seeing be better than reading?

I’ve read hundreds of nonfiction books and seen just as many documentaries, but I’d be hard press to point to a selection and claim they are the basis of my beliefs. Of course I have a confusing, muddled view of science and mathematics, and couldn’t actually teach what I know either. However, because there are endless views of The Bible or Quran, I tend to think even having just one book to master doesn’t lend itself to consistent explanations.

Despite all the books I’ve read about Einstein, and all the documentaries I’ve seen that explain his work, I still can’t comprehend relativity. Evolution makes sense to me, but I couldn’t teach it. I can understand why other people might not comprehend evolution.

Maybe we should ignore books altogether. Maybe we should strive to teach kids the basic concepts of science by having them recreate the experiments themselves. I’m getting sort of old, but I wonder if there are any experiments I could learn to do, that would allow me to see how a basic aspect of reality works. For example, I’ve been taught the sun is a big ball of hydrogen. Is there anyway I could prove that for myself?

For 2016, I plan to read On The Origin of Species. I wonder how close I can get to seeing the science behind it, and how much will remain just a story, a myth, a generalization? And after that, I want to find another science book that will take me closer to understanding real science rather than popularization. Einstein discovered relativity with thought experiments. I don’t think there will be many books I can comprehend actual science without mathematics and experimental apparatus, but there might be a few. I’m sure it’s more than one.

I ask my friends who believe in The Bible to distrust what it says, but am I not a creature of faith by my acceptance of science from popular sources? Who knows, maybe one book guides are one too many. Maybe we shouldn’t believe anything unless we can recreate the experimental proof ourselves.

JWH

Searching For Hope Thanksgiving 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2015

Yesterday was my 64th birthday. I had planned to publish “100 Signs of Hope for the Future” in reaction to my 63rd birthday post, “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive.” That essay, the most popular one I wrote this year, still gets 20-50 hits a day. This year I felt challenged to discover twice as many signs of hope for my 64th birthday. I’ve been working for weeks, but alas I have failed. Not because I couldn’t find that many signs of hope, but because the essay just got too big to finish on time. I’ve decided to break it into several essays.

Thanksgiving 2015 

I’ve switched to searching for hope because pursuing pessimism is pointless. Even if we know we’re going to lose, we have to bet to win. Signs of despair are everywhere, so it’s too easy to find roads to apocalypses. The real existential challenge is to find  routes out of our maze of problems. Deciding what we want is the first step on the journey. I want an Earth friendly society, where everyone is equal, who follow universally accepted standards of ethics, with lifestyles that are sustainable over millions of years, that leads to opportunity for all Homo sapiens while still fairly sharing this planet with the rest of our fellow species.

When we are young we have great hope for the future, but as we age, little by little, that hope fades. I grew up with a tremendous sense of wonder for this amazing reality around us, but as I’ve grown old, I’ve become increasing pessimistic about the future of our species. Most people on this planet hide from reality in childish beliefs about God and Heaven, but as an atheist, I have to live with the scientific assessment of our existence. The future looks bleak. But I want to fight the natural tendency of becoming cynical while growing wrinkles. I desperately want to the human race to get its shit together and make the most out of this astonishing piece of ontological luck.

Finding hope for the future is a Mt. Everest size challenge. News reporting makes us all want to stick our heads in the sand. How can we overcome our sense of powerlessness? Why does being spectators on the sidelines of history feel so soul destroying? When will weathervanes stop pointing to countless hurricanes bearing down on us from all the directions of the compass? I actually believe there are ways to solve our collective problems. The trouble is we are our own worst enemies.

It would have been much easier to find a 1,000 signs of despair than 100 signs of hope. We all cope by ignoring what we don’t want to see, and rationalize things will magically get better. It’s impossible for one person to even comprehend the holographic information behind one half-hour news program. Having access to the internet overwhelms our minds with infinite data. We can’t even tell the facts from misinformation. We all maintain an ever shifting illusion about the future. The easier path is to ignore what might be, and focus on our personal needs and wants. I see hope in just defining our problems, which is what I want to do in future essays.

The other night I found an especially important sign of hope in a very strange place, the documentary Pandora’s Promise. This film is about environmentalists who were once passionately against nuclear power that have changed their minds. The hope I find, is not in the promise of cleaner energy, but in the fact that fervent true believers can admit they were wrong. To survive all the ill winds that blow our way, will require open minds with a strong willingness to study new information. We’re currently being bombarded by politicians who regurgitate the same brainwashed propaganda of their parties. This gives us little reason for hope. We need more Sauls who become Pauls, transformed by the light of reality. And before all you conservative Christians gloat with glee over my metaphor, let me tell you that you’ve still got your own Road to Damascus to travel.

For all of us to find hope for the future will require each of us to transform ourselves. Last year I was pessimistic because I doubted we could change. Recently I decided to bet on hope than spend my waning years becoming bitter about the human race, like the aging Mark Twain. What I need, and I think every else needs too, are signs of hope. I’ve spent a lifetime reading science fiction, so thinking about the future comes easy to me. If this essay seems more worried over despair that’s because it illustrates two significant points. One, finding hope is Sisyphean task. Two, recognizing that we have a problem is the beginning of transcendence.

Our problem as ordinary citizens, is we feel powerless at controlling our own fates. We think leaders should enact policies that will change the way we live. That passivity is dangerous. It is our individual decisions to change ourselves that is the solution. The key issue is sustainability. The ways we live our lives are not sustainable. For me to find 100 true signs of hope will require finding signs we are all choosing sustainable ways live.

People seldom change without being forced to change. Few people will unilaterally sacrifice what they have to help others, or even help themselves. It’s one thing to have a lot, and share some extra. It’s a whole other thing to give up what you have. This past year I’ve chosen to go on a plant-based diet for health reasons. I’m constantly tormented by what I can’t have. It’s not easy doing without. I know so many people who have far more serious health issues, yet they say they won’t change how they live to save themselves. They pray for magical solutions. Such false hope will destroy us.

I agree we won’t change without technological help. We’re more likely to survive if clever engineers invent technology that bypass our human failings. But technology can’t be our only salvation. Anyone who has been on a diet knows how hard it is to change the momentum of habits. Anyone who has succeeded at losing weight and transforming their health, knows how empowering new habits can be. No civilization of the past has survived a major disruption, so we have a perfect record of losing. On the other hand, our species has been mutating and transforming at a hyper-rate since The Enlightenment. Scientific knowledge has transformed our cognitive abilities dramatically, and with technology we’ve transformed human society, the face of the Earth, and the biosphere. So far this knowledge has allowed us to become a cancer upon the planet.

The reason why I wrote that pessimistic essay last year was because I felt people are incapable of change, but a year of reflection tells me the human race constantly changes. Recent research shows the brain is very plastic, capable of rewiring, even late in life. Another good sign of hope. However, humans tend to change because of powerful outside forces rather than by personal choice. We evolve through survival. And now it’s time to evolve like we never evolved before. Is it possible to intentionally guide our evolution? Can we choose to do what’s hard instead of what’s easy? Will the seven deadly sins always rule our habits?

There seems to be little reason to expect a political solution. A U.S. president from either party will never be bold enough to defy political self interest. In fact, their self interest thrives on our weaknesses. Does that mean we should just give up and wait for the apocalypse? I’d like to believe when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we’re all tough enough.

Everything is interrelated. Solving any of our major problems requires solving our other major problems. Finding hope also involves recognizing the problem—we cannot solve problems we refuse to see. We cannot solve our problems without becoming different people from who we are now. Learning what we need to do will require reeducation, and that means a lot of reading and watching of documentaries. We need to learn how reality works. We need to stop pursing mindless forms of escapism. We’ve spent thousands of years praying to God, and we know that doesn’t work. Waiting for a Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, isn’t practical either.

To stop acting like lemmings rushing to the cliffs of oblivion requires thinking for ourselves.

Essay #982 – Table of Contents