Monday, July 24, 2006

Can we "just say no" to irrationality?

This is one of several blog entries that spin out of the book review column I wrote for the upcoming Fall issue of UU World. One of the books I discuss in that column is Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Briefly, this book claims that a world in which WMDs are so easily obtained can no longer afford “irrational” worldviews, which includes just about all religions.

Harris notes all the wars and atrocities in which religion can be implicated, and then proposes rationality as the solution:
Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately. [page 79]

As the book's argument evolves, however, Harris comes dangerously close to proposing his own genocidal project against Islamist countries that acquire WMDs.
In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime – as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day – but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. [page 129]

Personally, I don't think this idea is rational at all, but I don't doubt that Harris got here by trying to be rational. Which raises an interesting question: Is trying-to-be-rational always the best way to secure the fruits of rationality?

I'd like to propose an analogy: abstinence-only sex education. Its proponents claim that abstinence is the only 100% effective method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. But, of course, this is only true if you succeed in abstaining. Because the attempt to abstain frequently fails, teens who choose abstinence as their sexual strategy, if I remember correctly, actually are as likely as anybody else to get pregnant and are significantly more likely to catch an STD.

I wonder if the same thing happens with rationality. All kinds of good things follow if a person succeeds at being rational. But abstaining from irrationality is at least as hard as abstaining from sex, and people like Sam Harris frequently wind up rationalizing actions every bit as horrible as those put forward by people who barely value rationality at all. Might not some of them be better served by devoting themselves irrationally to a code that tells them to “love thy neighbor as thyself”?

All things considered, I wonder who gets better results.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Girls are victims, boys are losers

I've been thinking that I should blog some of the more substantial comments I leave elsewhere. That way not every post on F&RS will be indigestibly long.

Lots of people have been buzzing about Tamar Lewin's series The New Gender Divide that started in Sunday's New York Times. In particular, I ran into discussion of it at TPM Cafe, in an article by Joan Chalmers Williams, which prompted me to make this comment:

I think both sides need to be careful on this subject. It's very easy to go out and find a few quotes to support your preconceived ideas, and correspondingly hard to get objective data.

Here's what I see through the lens of my particular biases: When girls systematically underperform or behave self-destructively, it's assumed that they are victims of a system skewed against them. When boys systematically underperform or behave self-destructively, it's because they lack virtue. Girls are victims; boys are losers.

Both genders, for example, feel pressure to make their bodies fit an unrealistic ideal image. Girls starve themselves and get implants hoping to be Barbie. Boys take steroids hoping to be Michael Jordan. The coverage of these parallel issues, from my view, looks completely different. I read many sympathetic articles about anorexics, and even about girls who submit to cosmetic surgery, but steroid-taking boys are cheaters.

What if we could look at the pressures on college students without the victim/loser filter? According to this article, "For men, it’s just not cool to study." That used to be true about women, especially in math and science. Then feminists considered it a cultural problem, a way that girls were held down. Perhaps we should look at the boys' situation the same way.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Evolution and the Elements of Religion I: Ritual

Recently I was writing the Bookshelf column for the upcoming issue of UU World, reviewing (among other recent books) Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I was disappointed in the book, because Dennett seemed more interesting in using the evolutionary point of view to discount religion – “See, it wasn’t revealed by God!” – than to understand it.

I’ve been similarly unimpressed by books that want evolution to validate religion, either by finding a “God gene” or in some other way. In either case, religion becomes one big thing to be judged in its entirety. As soon as that happens, our current understanding of and attitudes toward religion get projected back in time. We find ourselves evaluating prior eras of human history based on how we feel about the present.

And yet, I’ve long been a fan of speculation about the evolution of human consciousness, and (separately) a fan of religious studies. Isn’t there some way to put the two together to help us gain insight? I think there is, but the insight to be gained is into the pieces of religion, the components out of which it is built. These pieces evolved at different times, as parts of human worldviews as different from each other as they are from our current modes of consciousness. Each evolved for its own reasons, and not to be part of that complex construction we currently call religion.

And so, I won’t be looking for a God gene, because I think that (on an evolutionary timescale) God is a comparative latecomer to religion. And instead of explaining everything about religion, I want to speculate about three of its most important components: ritual, scripture, and theology.

Of all the components I will discuss, ritual is the oldest. It predates not only scripture and theology, but language itself. Given the extent to which language has become inseparable from our sense of what it means to be human, it can be hard to imagine our nonverbal ancestors. (It's tempting to call them preverbal, but that's another way of projecting our standards backwards, making their lives look forward to ours.) What went on in their minds?

It’s easiest to think about what didn't go on. The nonverbal mind has no interior monologue – no chattering voice in the head saying, “Now I’m here by the river. After I’ve rested a few minutes I’m going to head back to the cave and see if any meat is left on the rabbit bones. Oh, there’s Og. I wonder what he wants?” Our nonverbal ancestors didn’t have stories or fictional/mythical characters. They weren’t able to communicate detailed descriptions of places. At best, they might be able to remind each other of shared experiences, and (at a second level, by implication) of the places where those events took place.

Hardest of all for us to grasp, though, is that they had no verbal crutch for memory. Our life story chains our memories together like charms on a bracelet. Words are a scaffolding from which our memories can hang. If I ask you to remember something from 1999, chances are you will first figure out which segment of your life 1999 belongs to: Were you in school then? Married? Had your children been born yet? How old were they? What house were you living in and what job did you have? Once 1999 is situated among those landmarks, memories will flow freely. But in the absence of an abstract story to tie them together, your memories would be disconnected. Something in the immediate environment might cue a memory, but without the crutch of words, without a well rehearsed story of your life, memories would lack context. And if nothing reminded you of an event, you would forget it. The nonverbal mind is a mind of the present.

We might be tempted to consider our nonverbal ancestors less than human, but they are clearly also something more than apes. In Origins of the Modern Mind Melvin Donald refers to this stage of human existence as mimetic culture. He postulates that humans of this era (approximately 1-2 million years ago) had the ability to communicate by mime. In other words, they could re-enact an event for the specific purpose of communication. Even the most intelligent apes in the wild seem not to do this. A chimp may learn to crack nuts by watching and imitating another chimp, but he will not then go over the hill to another group of chimps and mime: Bobo is over there cracking nuts.

Mime involves more than the ability to imitate; it also requires a theory of mind. In order to mime well, you need to imagine how others are perceiving you. That means that you imagine your fellow beings as having thoughts, and you believe that you can guess what those thoughts are. (Apes seem not to do this.) And, as in charades, you need to recognize when someone has grasped part of your message so that you can move on to the next part. If your audience is misinterpreting your mime, you need to recognize that quickly as well, so that you can back up and correct. Mime, in other words, is even more complicated mentally than it is physically.

Nonverbal humans also seem to have had rhythm. In response to a beat, humans of all cultures spontaneously start tapping their feet or swaying in rhythm, and people walking together tend to fall into step. (Psychologists call this entrainment.) Other primates do not. Tribes of monkeys may migrate or hunt together, but they do not march.

This combination of abilities allows the creation of public rituals – repeated group activities which each successive generation can learn and integrate itself into. This gives the community something it never had before: memory. A nonverbal ritual may survive intact even after all the individuals present at its creation have passed away. With memory comes culture – a suprabiological pattern of information that can preserve itself and even evolve without needing to change the genome.

We can see the evidence of this culture in archeological remains. While earlier humans made tools (and even apes make tools to a limited extent), mimetic culture produced the first standard toolset. In other words, mimetic humans passed down particular tool designs for hundreds of thousands of years. The toolmaking we see among apes seems to be an expression of spontaneous creativity: Gorillas, for example, have been seen uprooting small trees in order to lean on them while peering into a stream for food. But there is no evidence that they ever think: “Walking sticks are handy, I think I’ll make one just to have in case the need arises.” The blades and hammers of the Oldawann toolset, on the other hand, are hard to make, and the materials to make them are far removed from their occasions of use. Clearly the tools were valued as things in themselves, and were made in a setting where they were not immediately needed.

The content of the earliest rituals, of course, is lost. But we can guess this much: The communal memory was small by our standards, so the cultures that survived must have packed only the most essential information into their rituals. Perhaps the rituals identified the tribe’s best toolmakers and encouraged the young to imitate them (leaving the actual training to more spontaneous one-on-one sessions). Perhaps the rituals taught members of the tribe ways to recognize each other as comrades, and so allowed tribes to grow larger than they could if they relied purely on individual recognition. Perhaps they taught group hygiene (such as the disposal of dead bodies) and so prevented disease.

If we recognize such rituals as the beginnings of religion, we need to be careful not to project our later religious ideas onto them. Modern rituals can point to complex ideas communicated verbally, but most of the ideas we currently identify with religion cannot be communicated by mime and ritual alone. How, for example, would you mime the concept Creator of the Universe? (The modern game of Charades fools us about the capabilities of mime by adding verbal supports. The solution to the puzzle, after all, is a set of words. And rather than communicating the complete idea, we often mime the words one-by-one or even break a long word up into syllables. Nonverbal cultures couldn’t do this.) At most, a ritual might be able to re-enact the deeds of a hero who slew a great beast or a mother who gave birth to a great child. Anything more godlike than that seems to me to be completely off the scale.

Any abstract notion of sin or of salvation is similarly off the scale. A nonverbal culture could mime the characteristic gestures of a recently deceased person, and perhaps communicate the notion that s/he is journeying to some other place, but the afterlife could not have a detailed landscape. And how would you mime Watch out or you’ll go to Hell! to a disobedient youngster who didn't already have the idea of Hell in his head?

Abstract rules of behavior can’t be mimed. Consider the Golden Rule. You might act out specific examples of someone acting badly and then later being treated badly in the same way, but the abstraction would have to happen in the mind of the audience. Mime is far better suited to teaching specific behaviors than abstract rules.

Abstract psychological statements are no easier. Try miming: The men in my family have bad tempers or My childhood left me with a poor sense of self esteem, but I overcame that problem later in life. A simple When I was a child ... is hard enough to mime. You wouldn’t do it just to chat.

Now, even if you agree that certain ideas can’t be communicated in mime and ritual, you might believe that our nonverbal ancestors thought them anyway. But consider what this means. An idea that can't be communicated can’t be contained in the cultural memory. Each person who has the idea has to rediscover it independently. Imagine, for example, that you were a nonverbal mystic genius or (expressing the same idea theistically) that you were specially loved by God. Suppose God showed you a vision of the creation of the Universe – the full six-day extravaganza later written down in Genesis. That information would die with you, because you would have no way to communicate it to your successors. The vision could survive only if God showed it independently to someone in each generation. A true theist, I suppose, would not see this as impossible; but I want you to understand exactly the level of divine intervention you need to postulate.

Even for an individual, it is hard to remember an idea you have no way to represent. Present-day mystics understand that the experience of a truth-beyond-words is very difficult to bring into your everyday life. And unless you develop a technique for recreating the experience, eventually you remember little more than: “I had an experience of a truth beyond words.” Our nonverbal ancestors would have had the same difficulty with a truth-beyond-mime.

Even so, our ancestors might have had many ideas they couldn’t communicate, just as we do. But they would be the kind of ideas everyone learns just by living a human life: Losing someone you love hurts really bad. Getting old sucks. People are self-centered. If recognizing an idea requires special genius, the idea either has to be representable in the cultural memory or it will have no lasting effect.

What can these evolutionary speculations tell us about ritual as it appears in our religions today? First, it explains that feeling of heightened awareness we feel in the presence of ritual. If ritual was once the only way culture passed from one generation to the next, and if culture was itself a powerful aid to survival, then people would evolve to be especially attuned and susceptible to ritual. That susceptibility would persist even after the circumstances that favored it faded away.

Second, those tasks that mime and ritual handled well a million years ago are probably still being handled by mime and ritual today. Evolution is conservative. If a mechanism handles a particular task well enough, evolution will build new systems on top of it rather than redesign from the ground up. That’s why we still have an appendix: The mechanism that builds our organs works well enough that the disadvantage of an extraneous organ doesn’t cause a new mechanism to evolve.

And so even today, group membership and identity is largely a matter of ritual. That’s why many Catholics felt lost when the Latin mass was dropped, even if they comprehended no Latin and were unable to say what all the phrases meant. The physical experience of participation in the mass – knowing when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, and what syllables to utter in response to other utterances – gave them a deep sense of belonging that mere commonality of belief could not replace.

Not all rituals of group identification are so obvious. But if your group coheres, if it has a sense of shared identity, then you have rituals. No matter how intelligent and rational and evolved your members may be, their group identity springs from that (perhaps hidden) set of rituals. If you disturb those rituals in the slightest way, your community will be roiled by primitive waves of ire. And since those waves originate in the nonverbal human consciousness, you will have a hard time discussing exactly what is wrong.

Finally, to the extent that a religious practice seeks to recapture the immediacy of the nonverbal mind – its lack of inner monologue or its in-the-moment awareness, for example – ritual is going to be essential. You’ll never be able to talk or reason your way to satori.