Archive for May, 2008


Thursday, May 29th, 2008

“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:” Deut 30:19


A Michigan evolutionary anthropologist has done some computer simulations examining the evolution of the concept of God.


I know that this may be troubling to some who have a hard time with the whole concept of evolution. 


I think that the premise and conclusion are both fascinating regardless of your view of evolution.  That’s because it suggests something special about us as a species.


There are two contending theories regarding the evolution of the concept of God.  One says that it is an artifact of a previous brain function that originally had a far more tangible use.  The other is that it is an adaptation.  In other words, the concept of God developed because those who believed in God benefited in some way compared to those who didn’t. 


The premise to prove that God is an adaptation is fairly simple.  There are things that you can prove and things that you can’t prove.  For primitive people, you can prove things like gravity by throwing a rock in the air.  Every time you throw it up, it comes back down.  This is verifiable information.  No similar proof exists for the existence of God.  So any claims about God are largely unverified.  


The question then is, what benefit would accrue to those who shared unverifiable information compared to those who only share verifiable information?


What the researcher found is that there was only one simulation which explains the current state of widespread belief in God.


The factor was that those who didn’t believe were somehow attracted to those that did.  So those who did believe were benefited by getting more support from the community that those that didn’t.  This made it easier for believers to survive in greater numbers than non-believers. 


In other words, we may be hardwired at a very basic level to respect and admire the beliefs of others, even if we don’t share those beliefs.  


The researchers didn’t go into the concept of free will, but this seems a plausible and natural explanation for it.  All of us discover God in our own way based on our experience and our traditions.  God loved us so much that He gave us the ability to choose or reject Him.  But He also gave us a very simple appreciation for those who have already chosen so that this idea would have the opportunity spread and grow – one believer to another. 


We’re currently in a period of fanaticism and fundamentalism.  If the research is accurate, this period will pass.  Our normal and natural state is to cherish all believers.

Talk to Think

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

“The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness.” Prov 15:2


I heard an interesting program on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week. The guest was Don Tapscott. He is the author of a Wikinomics and thinks about how the web can change government.


What set off this train of thought, however, is his discussion about the value of blogging as an exercise in intellectual exploration and how the current political climate doesn’t tolerate it.


First a bit a background.


It is a physiological fact that there are two kinds of people in the world. In one case, brains have a very short path from conception to vocalization. Their speech mirrors their thought process. In the other case, thoughts go through a risk assessment before they hit the vocalization part of the brain. The speech of this group is much more cautious and mirrors conclusions rather than concepts because they have already done their evaluation before they talk. There isn’t anything inherently better about one mode versus another because, if you believe in evolution, there is clearly need in society for both voices. We may be approaching a time in politics, however, where “Talk to Think” politicians are going to be in favor.


Here’s the basic premise. Blogging is the modern equivalent of the town square. Those who are interested can seek out conversations that they find interesting and engage in discussions where hopefully both sides are learning. That can only occur if both sides allow for thoughtful exploration of the subject matter. In other words, in order to have progress, we have to allow each other the opportunity to modify our positions as we learn more about the subject. We have to be able to take the risk of being wrong in order to explore areas that aren’t well known. We have to be able to grow and have our positions reflect that growth.


That can’t happen in the current “Think to Talk” political climate.


Instead we have the example of Senator Obama musing about the motivations of the working poor, and then having that “bitter” comment become the rallying cry for Senator Clinton’s last push to become the Democratic nominee.


In a similar vein, Senator McCain was musing about how long troops might be on the ground in Iraq. Using our experiences in Germany, Japan, and Korea, he speculated that there could be troops in Iraq for a long time. That became a rallying cry for both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama who used that comment to suggest that Senator McCain supported another 100 years of combat in Iraq.


Senator Clinton had one of these moments last week when she suggested that there was wisdom in her continued campaign because previous nominations took dramatic turns before the convention. She used the example of the Bobby Kennedy assassination in 1968 to illustrate her point and almost immediately realized that larger implications of that comment.


Don Tapscott feels that this problem will, to some degree, fix itself. He feels that those who participate in social networks and support blogs not only understand, but are hungry for participatory government. They want to be engaged. They want to have input. They want a public transparent decision-making process where you can track progress toward a compromise. Senator Obama’s appeal to the young voter is based as much on this as it is his strong opposition to the war in Iraq. When he talks about change, this is what the younger voter hears. In their minds he “gets it”, and they are responding in numbers that we haven’t seen since the last peace movement.


The real question is whether he will be able engage enough older voters who are still stuck in “perfect President” paradigm to get elected.


Sunday, May 11th, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure to attend a lecture by the Dali Lama in Ann Arbor.

One of the more interesting aspects of the lecture was the Dali Lama’s suggestion that Tibetan Buddhism was not for everyone. He said that our beliefs are the product of our traditions. So, in his opinion, if you aren’t Tibetan it’s going to be difficult to completely understand everything about Tibetan Buddhism. Most non-Tibetans simply don’t have the cultural context.

In the same vein, he went on to say that he doesn’t mean to imply that Tibetans or Tibetan Buddhism is beyond the grasp of non-Tibetans. He suggested that it would likely be just as difficult for most Tibetans to understand and fully grasp everything about western Christianity.

Why I found this interesting is because right outside the Crisler Arena, there were about 100 Chinese quietly protesting the Dali Lama’s speech. They felt that he is responsible for the political unrest in Tibet. I found out later that at least some of the protesters, including one of their spokespeople, are naturalized US citizens. So the passion they felt for this particular subject was, as far as I could tell, genuine and not the result of overt coercion.

Given the Dali Lama’s insight, I started to think more deeply about what might move these Chinese to take the position that they did.

On the surface, there are just a lot of contradictions.

Here they are in a fairly free and open society where they are able to demonstrate and express their opinion. They are using that freedom to protest the fact that Tibetans are trying to do the same thing in an area of the world controlled by the Chinese.

They are supporting a government that prevents open access to the internet and press, but they are protesting what they see as a media bias against the Chinese government.

The Chinese government has spent decades attempting to discredit the Dali Lama as an untrustworthy political troublemaker and these protestors are supporting that line. The Dali Lama, as far as anyone in the west can tell, is doing his best to follow the teachings of Buddha and harm no living thing.

It has to come down to what the Dali Lama said. We simply don’t understand the nationalism that motivates the Chinese people these days. Their cultural context is beyond the grasp of most of us, and so we struggle when we see such bias and pride. The Olympics are a big deal for them and any attempt to move the spotlight away from what they see as their coming out party, is viewed as a overt attempt to discredit their nation AND them. They aren’t ready to look at themselves honestly because they have been changing so quickly and want credit for where they are going rather than where they current are.

If you put this in the context of history, I’m sure that Europeans have had the same reaction to Americans for at least the last 100 years.

Keep that in mind the next time a politician suggests that the rest of world really wants to be like us. Just as we don’t really understand them, it is very difficult for them to really understand us. Yet, we wage wars, overthrow sovereign governments, and pick sides in conflicts based on our view of the world. Just like the Dali Lama, we must seek understanding first before we can make statements like, “They hate our freedom”. If we really seek to love our neighbor as ourselves, isn’t that the least we can do?