Friday, January 27, 2012

What is Intelligent Design?

This screed came out of my pen in reaction to an article on Intelligent Design theory, which was sent to me by a very good friend.

I have believed both sides of this argument: I started out believing in Darwinian evolution, converted to ID, and have re-converted to belief in evolution.  To me, it seems abundantly clear (1) that change happens all the time, (2) that there is a significant degree of randomness involved in change, and (3) that people systematically underestimate the randomness (or overestimate their ability to understand it).  This does not mean that I think that everything Darwin said is true: it isn't, and current ideas about biological evolution look significantly different from what he put forward in On the Origin of Species.  In the future, theories will continue to evolve: it is not in the nature of things for permanent knowledge to exist.  Real knowledge depends on context, which is constantly changing.  Useful knowledge does not assert itself as something absolute, unchanging, non-evolving.

One problem that people on the ID side have (from my perspective) is that they fail to understand how design really works.  Take Paley's analogy: you find a watch on the beach (watch = universe) and presume that some watchmaker (= God) made it.  In real life, however, watchmakers don't make watches on their own, with untutored intelligence!  The original watch was a clock, which came into existence at multiple times in history in various formats: engineers took those formats and tweaked them, and tweaked them, and tweaked them, and continue to tweak them, creating all kinds of different watches.  No one individual ever invented a Platonic form of the watch ("one watch to time them all").  Someone came up with a gizmo that gave someone else an idea for another gizmo, and so on.  The watch is evolving as I write this.  Watchmakers are noticing random things in their old blueprints, in their customer base, in the work of other watchmakers, and they are building new watches (including some very different from an early Benedictine clock).  The original watchmakers did not come up with their watch out of thin air: the gizmos they built were likewise inspired by earlier gizmos (and a crowd of engineering ideas that no single historical individual is responsible for).  The way that "intelligent design" actually works in human terms is actually very much like the way modern biologists imagine biological evolution taking place.  Engineers share ideas and create multiple gizmos (which become prototypes for more gizmos) just as organisms share DNA and create multiple offspring (which become prototypes for more organisms).  One person is not responsible for creating watches (which are a collective phenomenon).  One thing is not responsible for creating biological life (which is a collective phenomenon).

Another problem with ID is that it does not really say anything about how we are to understand things.  The modern biologist's story of evolution doesn't just give you a fun myth for science class: it explains how diseases happen (as bacteria and viruses evolve to become better predators), how speciation happens (as isolated pockets of organisms develop apart from their parent populations), how ecosystems exist (as multiple populations of living things evolve together) -- and thus how our actions as human beings influence the prevalence of disease and living species.  It gives practical answers (that actually work sometimes!) to practical questions (should I build a house here? what kind of house? should I have a pet? what kind? what should I eat? what medicine should I take for a particular illness or infection?).  ID, on the other hand, just points out that the whole thing is a mystery.  "The universe is the product of an otherwise unknown and perhaps unknowable intelligent designer" (who for some reason left no business card on the beach with Paley's watch).  Can I ask the designer what to do when I am sick, when I want to build a house?  I can.  What does he say?  Nothing at all, until I remember that he is also known as God.  Then he says all kinds of stuff
"You are sick?  Sacrifice a lamb, or a goat, or two turtle doves, and leave an offering of incense with the priest (who must be paid handsomely to officiate).  That didn't work?  Well, maybe you can try dedicating a small statue of me (complete with thunderbolts in hand) at your local temple?  That didn't work?  How about a cast of the affected body part?  Still no dice?  Well, I suppose you could try burning or cutting yourself: remember that weird dream you had about being on fire the other night?  I sometimes talk to people in dreams.  Maybe you should ask the local madman what he thinks; I love schizophrenics: they always hear me so loud and clear!"  
Historically speaking, God has many conflicting faces (all of them suspiciously human, to my eye), and he offers all kinds of contradictory prescriptions for human life, contradictory prescriptions that are about as reliable as medicine before germ theory.  (By saying all kinds of different things over time, God occasionally offered somebody something that worked, much as some pre-modern doctors occasionally cured people with panaceas like quinine.  If I give quinine to every sick person I meet, the malaria patients will be cured; some people will get better on their own; and everyone else will die.  Old time medicine, like old time religion, worked, but it was not really reliable.  Sometimes, avoiding the consumption of pig meat may help society prosper; other times, not so much.  God is either really bad at seeing the difference or really bad at communicating it to his acolytes.)  The ID people have no practical advice to offer except the outworn ideas presented by God: some of these ideas work (perhaps even very well), and others don't, but it takes an evolutionist to see the difference.  The evolutionist may give you some of God's medicine, but he will follow up with you when it doesn't work, and will even invent new medicine (which won't always work, either).  The ID guy just hands you over to the priest, who gives you the divine panacea du jour and then lets you survive or die without bothering to think of anything new (and heretical: we have to stick to the tried and true, even when history shows us that it doesn't really work). 

Evolution is practical because it changes (mimicking the growth we see in life, and in God, for that matter).  ID is impractical because it does not change (mimicking the stagnation we see in death, and in many churches).  The people who believe in evolution are engaging in useful thought whenever they ask how changes occur.  The people who believe in ID are not, since they have no positive theory of change.  I reconverted to belief in evolution when I realized that in my experience (1) change is real, and (2) engaging it practically requires something more than uncritical acceptance of ancient mythology.  This is not because the mythology is worthless, but because it contains a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat, chaff that needs to be sifted out if I am to avoid poisoning myself every time I take something from God's medicine cabinet (which we all do at some point: no one claims to know everything, except for some crazy fanatics, and we all fall back on "common sense" whose usefulness is open to question).        

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Mormons are Christians, Part 2

This podcast validates my own position that Mormons are Christians.  Historically speaking, Abrahamic religion lives in a milieu defined by pseudepigrapha ("false writings" whose historical authors assign their work to some mythical hero, e.g. Moses or Paul or some other legendary Christian apostle or associate of the prophet Muhammad).  Like other religious leaders before him (e.g. the Deuteronomists, the Christian writers who gave us the Gospels or some of the dubious Epistles, and Muslim authors of hadith), Joseph Smith (and/or his collaborators) made up stories, sacred stories that he credited to mythical heroes (Moses, Abraham, Mormon, Moroni, Nephi).  

Mormonism is just one outgrowth of the giant body of folklore that is Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with all their different sects).  Folklore can be profound.  Folklore can be moving.  Folklore can teach you useful things.  But it is not history.  It cannot teach the lessons of history.  Its lessons are about human nature, not what really happened at some point in historical time, since most of it never did (certainly not as advertised): no historical Exodus, no Resurrection, no appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad, no First Vision for Joseph Smith.  These events are myths that explore human nature outside of history--myths like the Lord of the Rings, the Kalevala, the Nibelungenlied, the Volsungasaga, the Homeric epics, the Mahabarata, and the Ramayana.

There is definitely a useful place for myth in the world.  I can learn from Tolkien's work without believing in a historical place known as Middle Earth.  The character of Bilbo Baggins offers insight into modern human nature, not the nature of a nonexistent tribe of midgets living in a culture that has disappeared from the face of the earth (leaving no physical trace, just like the Lamanites and the Nephites!).  All these years I thought I was trying to be a "faithful" historian, I was really just doing my utmost to turn ancient science fiction into factual history.  I attended seminars in ancient history that were functionally equivalent to courses in "hobbitology" (complete with the latest research tracing the real history of Homo floresiensis: the Liang Bua cave is all that remains of the Shire)!  It would be funnier if people didn't take it all so seriously.

Bob Price is my kind of Southern Baptist, and I am his kind of Mormon.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Dark Side of Religious Fervor

A friend brought these clips to my attention.  While I don't endorse Christopher Hitchens without qualification (since I have my own opinions), here he summarizes an insight that was crucial to me as I came to doubt my old, naive faith in religion (leaving God out of it for the moment).  Religion doesn't make people better.  I am not certain (as Hitchens is) that it makes them worse, but it certainly can countenance bad things, including some things so bad that they take my breath away.

In at least some cases, religion seems to exacerbate human situations that are already suboptimal, taking something bad and making it truly rotten.  My faith crisis involved seeing this on a small scale in my own life (as I recognized toxic ideas I was clinging to because I had religious faith in them), and on a large scale in the world (where I awoke slowly in the wake of 9/11 to the fact that religion kills as much as it creates, that it is at least as cruel as it is kind, that I was ignoring the vast potential for ruthless destruction that lurked under my innocent willingness to do without question whatever a particular group of older men might tell me to do).  This was something horrible to contemplate, but I am honestly more scared of the results had I not dared to look into the abyss and ask myself, "Do I really want to pledge my soul to somebody else? Can I live with faith in an institution that demands unqualified, uncritical obedience?"

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Robert Bly.  Iron John: A Book about Men.  Originally published by Addison-Wesley, 1990.  ISBN: 0306813769.

Julien Smith.  The Flinch.  Domino Project, 2011.  ASIN: B0062Q7S3S.

For many years, I lived with a gnawing fear in the pit of my stomach.  In a very visceral way, I just knew that there were bad things abroad in the world.  I knew that these bad things were coming for me, and that I was no match for them: they were harder, stronger, bigger, and more complex than anything I was prepared to deal with.  I lived in fear of them, all the time.  The older I got, the worse the fear became.  I feared that I would get sick, that I would not be able to go to school, that I would flunk out, that I would would never get a job, that people would see me for the pathetic weakling I thought I was and reject me without a second thought.  As an adolescent, I attempted to deal with this fear in a number of ways: I retreated to books, to chores, to physical activities, and (above all) to religious exercises like prayer and confession.

My youthful attempts to escape the fear were not uniformly successful.  While I could put my mind out of fear temporarily with coping strategies (the books, the chores, the physical activities, and some religious activities), I could never really banish it.  My most excruciating experiences with it were religious: no matter how hard I prayed, I could not be permanently certain that I was worthy of God's love.  It seemed to me that no matter what I did or could do, God was always one thought away from condemning me to hell.  In retrospect, I can see that this was largely a question of puberty: I reached it, had some sexual feelings, and was convinced that the devil had taken permanent hold of me (since in spite of all I did--praying every day, studying scripture, serving in church callings, confessing to the bishop repeatedly--I could not make the sex go away).  But there were deeper insecurities here than just teenage sexuality, and my spirit was in some measure already broken before the correlated LDS gospel stomped on it for good measure.

Looking back, I think the thing that bothered young me most about life in general and sex in particular was my lack of control.  I believed that there should be a way of living that gave me control over myself.  I wanted to take action to make myself strong--physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually healthy.  I wanted to do something that would help me face the fear.  In hard work, I found the closest thing to a panacea: I could toughen my body and my mind with intelligent and diligent practice, spending time in the yard, in the gym, and in the library with thick books.  But my spiritual practice seemed to leave me worse than I was before undertaking it.  I came away from hard work exhausted but relaxed (and unafraid), while spiritual work left me more worried (and afraid).  Even when I had a good spiritual experience, I knew it was only a matter of time before something shattered my fragile feeling of spiritual calm.  Every time I went with the youth to the LDS temple, I asked myself Do I really belong here? Am I really worthy to be in the presence of the Lord? and I was always afraid that the answer would be No.  When I did feel that negative answer, I wanted to kill myself.  The shame was almost unbearable, and talking about it with God and church leaders made it worse.  Family members could sometimes talk me down, but it was brutal.  I would fantasize about suicide or castration.  I feared to share this with anyone.  I just wanted to curl up and die, ridding an otherwise beautiful world of the blot that was my miserable, wicked existence.

Robert Bly and Julien Smith write about what ultimately saved me from this psychic death trap.  As part of his work on masculine psychic development, Bly talks about katabasis, Greek for descent, as something all of us have to undergo on the road from cradle to grave (Iron John, p. 70):
Our story simply says that after wandering around a while, having no "craft," the young man at last got a job in the kitchen--which is traditionally in the basement--of a castle.  The story [of Iron John] says that after all the gold fingertips and hair [the rich life experienced by the young protagonist before], what is proper next for the man is the whirlpool, the sinking through the floor, the Drop, what the ancient Greeks call katabasis.
When katabasis happens, a man no longer feels like a special person.  He is not.  One day he is in college, being fed and housed--often on somebody else's money--protected by brick walls men long dead have built, and the next day he is homeless, walking the streets, looking for some way to get a meal and a bed.  People know immediately when you are falling or have fallen: doormen turn their backs, waiters sneer, no one holds the subway car door for you.  Your inner psychology changes as an old shame surfaces; one walks with head down and feels it's all inevitable.  The inner masculine self changes.  While one is still grandiose and naive, a young man lives inside, shiny-faced, expectant, hopeful, dandified, a prince.  After the Descent begins, an old man takes the place of the prince.  To one's amazement a helpless, anti-social, brittle, isolated derelict takes over.
Katabasis is what happens when there is nowhere to run from the fear.  Stuck with nowhere to go, the only thing one can do is take the low road, the road that leads straight into the jaws of hell, straight into the place one has been desperately trying to avoid.  You face your greatest fear head-on, confronting Death like a mythic hero (think of Heracles going down to the Underworld, or Jesus going to free the souls in Hell).  You let Death give you her best shot, recognizing that she might utterly destroy you with it.  And then, something miraculous happens: the fear recedes, and your capacity to act effectively increases.  Death breaks you down, smashing your illusions to pieces, and you emerge from the conflict forged into something better, something different from anything you would have imagined before.  One might call it resurrection.

Bly talks about katabasis as one stage in the life of man.  Smith treats it as a recurring phenomenon, noticing how the people who achieve moral greatness in life are invariably those who are able to go through katabasis (which he calls facing the flinch) repeatedly without backing down.  Death pushes you toward torpid entropy, insisting that you live in an increasingly narrow comfort zone--avoiding conflict of any kind until you find perfect peace and flatline.  The submissive are too afraid of Death to rebel, too timid to confront their fears head-on (breaking out of old habits, which might be smoking, drinking, working a soul-destroying job, or cultivating a psychotic fascination with one's incurable wickedness).  Smith's thesis: Improving life requires cultivating the ability to change habits; one does this by repeatedly facing the flinch and refusing to back down.  If you are afraid of something, you confront it directly, deal with it, and move on past it.  If you want to be a champion athlete, you pursue your sport of choice to the point of exhaustion, pass that point, and discover the outermost limits of your physical capacity.  If you want to stop smoking (or doing any drug), you cut your use down to nothing and discover a new life (without the drug).  It hurts, of course, but the only thing that hurts more than confronting your fears is avoiding them.
There are a million ways to avoid the flinch, a million ways to do wrong by yourself in evading it.  There are a hundred names for those people and behaviors: lazy, avoidant, cynical, arrogant, and anything in between.  All of these names convey attitudes that encourage you to avoid seeing what is right in front of you, all in a different way, and each of the people who has one of these attitudes defends it.  In contrast, there is only one way to do it right and to see the truth.  It is to look at these ways of acting in yourself or others and cross through their verbal defenses, and not to believe them at all.

Every person has his own way of being avoidant and overly confident.  It's impossible to name all the ways people do this.  But the solution is always the same: ruthless yet compassionate honesty in the face of all the lies you tell yourself.  The flinch will keep you avoidant your whole life if you let it.  You will see nothing of the magic or serendipity or incredible experiences that others have if you keep your blinders on.  For this reason, taking them off may be the single most important challenge you ever face.  There are enough viewers.  There are enough cheerleaders.  There are enough coaches and enough commentators.  What there isn't enough of are players.  Do not put this down and return to your normal life.  Fight.  Don't flinch.  Don't ever be afraid again. 
At some point, I confronted certain fears and grew past them.  In the gym, I confronted the physical pain and danger associated with active movement, and I became stronger.  In the classroom, I confronted my fear of ignorance and mental ineptitude, and I became more intelligent.  But at church, I remained stuck in my old patterns of fear.  My progress outside church came from a willingness to doubt everything.  I came into the gym and the classroom prepared to unlearn everything I thought I knew about strength and intelligence.  I was open, humble, and critical (without being mean: finding the right answer was my goal, not denigrating the wrong answer).  But religion resisted these attributes, telling me that there were things I could not question, things that I could not under any circumstances doubt.  Initially, I accepted that religion was unique, above questioning.  I avoided the flinch, swerving away from the gates of hell.  But this was a bad strategy: it was slowly killing my spirit, just as mental or physical stagnation would have killed my body.

As time went by, I became more and more conscious that I was running from something every time I went to church, and it seemed more and more that what I was running from was the best part of my character--the happy part, the part that knew how to do something besides cower in fear of the wrath of the Almighty.  The more time went by, the more I wanted to confront my fear.  I knew I needed to confront it, or it would destroy me.  Still, that confrontation was one of the hardest things I have ever done.  It required me to look deep into my soul and see what was really there.  It required me to let go of my preconceptions about life, my religious faith that everything would be OK if I just avoided the flinch.  As I turned down the road to hell, finally, it occurred to me that I had spent many years talking about something I had never really done.  I talked about trusting God.  I talked about letting go, about falling into the abyss with faith that whatever happened would be right.  I talked, but the whole time my eyes were screwed shut, and my feet were planted as far away from that abyss as they could be.  This was particularly striking when I looked back on my experience teaching church lessons to "investigators" (as LDS missionaries call potential converts): I would tell these people to let go of their ideas about life and throw themselves entirely on the mercy of an unknown God (I thought I knew him, but they knew they didn't).  I was like the skydiving instructor who coaches other people to successful jumps without ever attempting one himself.  I needed to get out and do something.  I needed some skin in life's game.  I needed things to be real, more than I needed them to be safe.  So I finally turned down the forbidden road.  I followed all the great heroes whom life has ever produced (and many more whom we will never hear from), and I took the low road to an unknown place.

When I came back from that awful place (a place of awe), I was a changed man.  Some things were better: I was no longer constantly afraid.  Some things were worse: many of my cherished dreams about the nature of reality (and the character of God) were shattered, and some of my old friends could not bear to see me without these.  Some even seemed to value these dreams more than they valued me, suggesting that it might be better that I had died or suffered anything rather than face the flinch and overcome my fear.  I understand how these people feel.  I do not think less of them for feeling, and I am truly grieved that they are grieved, but I do not think I would do things differently if I could somehow go back to where I was before the descent.  The descent destroyed some parts of me, yes, but the parts that it left make a much better person--a person less afraid of his own shadow, a person more able to make real moral decisions for himself (rather than relying blindly on others with more social capital or more guts).  I am no longer ashamed to be alive (or at least, not as ashamed as I used to be).  I do not live in permanent fear of the Almighty, or anything really.  Death will come for me again, of course, but meantime there is nothing to be gained by worrying about her.  I have discovered the courage to recognize and live by my own moral convictions.  I would not trade that for anything.  It has given me unexpected faith in my own humanity, tapping internal reservoirs of moral strength and conviction that I did not know I possessed.  These days, I really want to live, and my fears have become challenges to be met with defiance rather than a fate I must endure in submission.  I love Henley's old poem:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Life can be truly miserable sometimes, for me and for other people (including many who suffer more than I ever have).  Sometimes, it makes no sense.  But fear is not the answer.  Fear will not save you; or, at the very least, it was not saving me.  After my descent into the underworld, I have a new message for whatever is out there commanding my fear (whether humans, gods, demons, or an impersonal, indifferent nothingness): "Bring it!"  I may not have what it takes to win (and eventually everyone loses), but you had better believe I will go down swinging.  No more cowering and cringing for me.  No more flinching.