October 1997

The Garden

An old story tells of a person who took a patch of rocks and weeds and turned it into a beautiful garden. A religious authoritarian neighbor saw the garden and tried getting in a plug for his religion. “Praise God for the beautiful garden He shared with you,” said the neighbor.

The gardener admitted that he did depend on the rain and weather to get the garden to grow and then said, with a wink, “You should have seen the garden when God had it to himself.”

Humanists recognize that making the most of our one and only life here on earth depends on human effort and intelligence, not on supernatural beings.

— Derrick Strobl
The Central Ohio Humanist

Broca’s Brain

~Book Review~

Broca’s Brain, written by Carl Sagan, first published in 1974, is a compilation of the author’s thoughts and musings that cover a broad spectrum of ideas. The title comes from the 19th century surgeon, neurologist and anthropologist, Paul Broca. He was one of the first to discover that different functions are confined to different parts of the brain. He believed that by studying the brains of cadavers and correlating the known experiences of the former owner of the organs, human behavior could eventually be discovered and understood. To that end he saved hundreds of human brains in jars of formalin. Among the collection is his own neural organ.

Sagan uses Broca as an example that ideas, which seem perfectly sound at any given moment, often change as knowledge accumulates and technology marches forward. This is one of the primary principles of the Scientific Method. Without the ability to modify our understanding, we become mired in dogma.

Much of the book is devoted to debunking “paradoxers” who either live at the edge of science or are outright charlatans. Another large part of the book discusses naming conventions for the members of our solar system and their physical features. Science fiction is also discussed at some length.

The final section of the book is entitled, “Ultimate Questions.” Here are a few lines:

“My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence were provided by such a god…on the other hand if such a god does not exist then our curiosity and intelligence are the essential tools for survival. In either case the enterprise of knowledge is essential for the welfare of the human species.”

“When I give lectures on borderline or pseudo or folk science, I am sometimes asked if similar criticism should not be applied to religious doctrine. My answer is, of course, yes. Freedom of religion is essential for free inquiry. But it does not carry with it any immunity from criticism or reinterpretation for the religions themselves. The words ‘question’ and ‘quest’ are cognates. Only through inquiry can we discover truth.”

Sagan posits that much of life, from so-called near death experiences to religions, can be understood and explained by the one common experience we all share: birth. The explanation is elegant, well articulated and worth reading.

Dr. Sagan is sorely missed.

–Wayne Wilson

Cogito Ergo Sum
Can We Think For Ourselves?

Ron Yengich, a distinguished local attorney, spoke to the general meeting of Humanists of Utah on September 11, 1997. There were 88 people present at the meeting, a new attendance record for a Humanists of Utah event. Ron’s remarks were very well received and a lively discussion ensued after the formal presentation. Here is a summary of his remarks:

According to Yengich, the major problem in our society today is blind adherence to religious and secular authority because we have lost the ability to think for ourselves.

Galileo Galilei, who did his own thinking, was prostrate before the Inquisition as René Descartes was penning his most famous phrase. Other thinkers were tortured and killed for the crime of challenging ecclesiastical authority–for doing their own thinking.

“Our sense of thinking about ourselves establishing our own reality, is becoming a lost concept,” said Yengich. “You can’t love other people until you have some understanding of yourself.” Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Paine would be astounded by today’s society. These leaders, who established the great American experiment, would be aghast that we allow others to do our thinking for us. Our opinions and attitudes are all set by television, newspapers, the government and the Internet. We have become, “We the Sheep.”

Our government is overworked and understaffed. We expect government employees to do everything with no budget. Our political parties are dependent on big money–we as individuals have no influence on politics because the very wealthy have locked us out. We have sold out to special interests. The main reason we have given up our birthright is that we have lost the ability to think for ourselves. Thomas Paine could not and would not live in our society. He would not do what it takes to influence a Senator and he would never appear on Oprah, so Common Sense would never sell.

We label people, ideas and groups. This limits our ability to interact with ideas or people who have different labels than our own. We have lost the ability to compromise. We are all responsible for the ills of society because we don’t think for ourselves. We let the media tell what to thing and what opinions to have. They tell us what is right and what is wrong.

We no longer even have the desire to compromise. “If Orrin Hatch, Jesse Helms, Joe Biden, Dick Gephart, and Newt Gingrich were at the Constitutional Convention, we would still be acting under the Articles of Confederation.”

Anything that is not an all out victory is considered a weakness. Compassion is considered a weakness and nearly everything these days is described as a war metaphor: the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, even sporting events are billed as wars and battles. Even a miniscule amount of thinking will reveal that sporting events are not wars, they are games.

We never take responsibility for anything. We blame lawyers, doctors, liberals, humanists, or welfare mothers for all of society’s ills. The last thing any of us is willing to do is acknowledge blame if something goes wrong. We operate on fads, catch words and jingles because we refuse to think for ourselves and then blame someone else if something goes awry. “We are more concerned about what others think about us than what we think about ourselves. This has led to the loss of the simple pleasure of good humor.”

–Wayne Wilson

The One Thing Needful

People have the problem of letting other people think for them.

If everyone is letting everyone else think for them, then who is doing the thinking?

I don’t think it’s just a matter of laziness. For many, I’m sure it is. But I don’t think that all humankind is lazy. Lazy seems to imply ignorance: lack of action in the face of knowledge. I think the problem is people don’t know how to find the knowledge to act on. People “know” many facts, but aren’t motivated by them. Why?

I remember reading a book in high school. It was an assignment, and in the face of such a requirement–as I’m sure all of us understand–those books just don’t seem to hold me. I would rather read something I chose to read. (“Don’t you know that this will help you,” I can hear my teacher ask? “Yes, of course,” I respond, “but I don’t want to.”)

But that book made a great impact on me. I met one of my best friends while reading it (he seems to have the same feeling about reading books, too) and I seemed to connect with what it said in the first chapter, The One Thing Needful.

A teacher stands before his classroom. There is a point he wants to get across, a point he wants to emphasize. “Now, what I want is, facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, sir!

“…In this life, we want nothing but facts, sir; nothing but facts!”

Thinking back on it, what I objected to was being force fed “facts,” without good reasoning to back them up. I wanted to believe, to accept, because I understood. But most importantly I wanted principles and knowledge that would help me achieve and support the things that I valued.

For me it was a moral stance. I began to realize that the One Thing Needful was not facts, but Reason.

What does the child ask for when commanded by a parent? A reason. They want to know why.

But what does that mean? What is it they really want? To me, the human being from day one begins to recognize patterns. A person begins to bring in information, and so not to be overwhelmed, that person looks for patterns in the overall confusion. As time progresses, this desire turns from patterns to security. More than anything, I feel the common human wants to feel secure.

However, we realize that since action is a requirement of life, security is not possible. With action comes reaction; with reactions, come a lack of control because we are being acted upon. We begin to look for meaning in all this.

Our confusion, and insecurity, lead us to find meaning in existence, and in our lives; and from meaning we search for a purpose. And what is purpose, but the reason behind the meaning.

Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary defines “reason” as “a motive or cause for an action, belief [or] thought, etc. An explanation for, or defense of, an action, belief, etc. Justification. Good judgement. Common Sense….To think logically; obtain inferences or conclusions from known or presumed facts.” But finally, Funk and Wagnall’s concludes, “To think out carefully and logically; to analyze.”

When it comes to how we conduct our lives, there are attitudes, and there are reasons. Attitudes are the state of mind, or position held, by our brains. Reasons are the motivations for the attitudes. These combined lead to action, and to the action of living.

The problem, maybe even the biggest problem, is that too often we allow others to dictate our attitudes for us, as if they have the reasons. When we lose the reasons, we lose the motivation, we lose the meaning, we lose the purpose, and therefore, we lose the power to achieve, and maintain, what we have found to be of value.

How do we stop this? How do we empower ourselves, instead of letting someone else dictate for us what our reasons are? We must think for ourselves.

  1. Here are some reasons, steps, that I feel will give us a place to start. If you don’t find them consistent with what you have experienced, that’s okay. You don’t have to agree with them. The very fact that you disagree already gets you going in the right direction.
  2. Develop a method for finding what is true, or accurate. Take everything into account: every sense, every feeling, every thought. Don’t deviate from your method without good reason. If you must, stick with your changes henceforward.
  3. Let the method define your attitude. Your attitude will give you direction. It will give you purpose.
  4. As you pursue your purpose, your pursuit will require continued effort.
  5. At this point you will have achieved. You will no longer be a part of “the problem,” but a part of the resolution. You must continue, however or you may become a part of “The Problem.”

For me this is the foundation. Everything we want to express, everything we want to feel, everything we want to experience comes from following this foundation: these steps. Or as George Santayana once said, “For the life of Reason, being the sphere of all human art, is man’s imitation of divinity.”

How does all of this fit into Philosophy? It is significant because Philosophy is the recognition of these things. It is a recognition of our attitudes. It is a recognition of meaning, and a search for purpose. It develops our attitudes, and gives them definition. It challenges us to continue, and makes us smile as we recognize success, and feel our motivation.

Morality is our integrity in staying true to our values that motivate our lives, giving meaning and purpose to our existence, and happiness in our achievements. Reason, what we find when we think for ourselves (and there is no other way but to think), is the One Needful Thing. Facts are just the assertions of the weak, who have lost power over themselves, and therefore must rely on others to live their lives for them.

–David Evans

Is the Creation Myth Harmful?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

The creation story in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament contains a number of contradictions and superstitions, some of which grow out of scientific ignorance, Utah Humanists member Earl Wunderli pointed out at the last meeting.

This tale was put together by priestly hands soon after the time of the exile of the Jews to Babylonia in 586 BCE. It is widely accepted among scholars today that the story “was, in fact, a version of the Babylonian creation myth, purified of polytheism and grossness, and put into the loftiest and most abstract terms of which the Jewish priesthood was capable,” according to Isaac Asimov. This plus some other portions of the first few books of the Bible are part of the “Priestly document,” which is usually designated as P. There are two strands in the Hexateuch: the first, an early one, is known as the “J document” because of its characteristic use of “Jehovah” (Yahvew) in connection with God. The second, the “E document,” uses Elohim for God. There are actually two creation stories, one in chapter one of Genesis and the other in chapter two

Contradictions in the myth are: First, on the third day God created grass, herbs and fruit trees (1:11-13), but the sun on the fourth day (1:14-19) [Grass, herbs, and fruit trees cannot live without sunlight]. Second, on the first day God created light to divide night from day (1:3-5); but the sun and moon on the fourth day (1:14-19). Third, he made birds from the waters (1:20-23), but he formed every fowl out of the ground (2:19). Fourth, the order of creation in the P account were fowls (1:20-23), then beasts (1:24) and man and woman (1:26-27), but in J it is man (2:7), beasts and birds (2:19) and then woman from man (2:21).

Then there are the superstitions of the story: God commands Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). Adam named every living creature (2:19) [Science has shown that there are millions of species]. God made Eve from the rib of Adam (2:21-23). The serpent persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit (3:4-5). God is vengeful. Because of disobedience, woman was to bring forth children in sorrow (3:16), and the ground is cursed bringing forth thorns and thistles (3:17-18).

Concepts growing out of scientific ignorance were the Pre-Darwinian idea that plants reproduce “after his kind” (1:11-12) and the pre-Copernican notion that God put stars in the firmament to give light upon the earth.

Some values taught by the creation story can have a harmful effect upon people. The view that man is to have dominion over every living

thing (1:26, 28) has been used as justification for unwise destruction of the environment, which could leave future generations with an unhealthy and unpleasant world in which to live. God’s commandment to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” encourages overpopulation, a major cause of poverty. Attributing Adam’s disobedience to Eve’s temptation of him unjustly and chauvinistically pictures women as the source of men’s evil actions, and thus fails to hold men responsible for their own actions. Sexism and patriarchal exploitation and abuse of women are sanctioned by the injunction that, because of Eve, a woman’s “desire shall be to her husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

Experience suggests that contradictions in the teachings of scriptures don’t matter to the True Believers. They simply dismiss them, as a duck sheds water off its back. Even harmful doctrines usually don’t dissuade the faithful. It is likely that the only effective approach to the problem of superstitious belief is extensive education.