Superficial is as superficial does

This is something that really chaps my hide. This blog post on The Fickle Heartbeat is basically highlighting a double standard in superficiality when it comes to dating.  In case you don’t feel like clicking on the link, I’ll post the entirety of the article for you here as well:

“I once met a man from an online dating site for a Coke at a local restaurant. His profile said he was an engineer – and I envisioned a well-educated professional. I have an MBA, and that’s just the kind of man I was looking for.

When my “date” began his monologue, he told me he was an engineer in a hotel — the guy who fixes things that break. Ohhhkkkkaaaayyyyy….He also said he had a second job since he was in a bad financial situation and that he worked in the deli at a local grocery store.Shortly after that (I should’ve said “mercifully after that…”) his cell phone rang. He answered and said it was an urgent call from his boss — not on his “real” job at the hotel — but at the BiLo deli. He had to leave immediately to handle a deli emergency …  (What? They ran out of ham?)And I (gleefully) watched him rush away …So much for my fantasy of hooking up with a brainy engineer in a suit and tie. This was more like meeting a man wearing an apron and a plastic deli cap.”

This is bullshit for two reasons. First, it’s a fallacy to judge someone’s intellect based on their job. How would she know if he’s really nerdy or not? Or really smart? She didn’t even give the poor fellow a chance. She instantly made a biased, snap judgment. Just because this guy works in a hotel and a deli doesn’t mean he isn’t nerdy or intelligent. Hell, Einstein worked in a patent office before his academic career, not exactly a prestigious or intellectual job. Maybe this guy is really into nerdy things and maybe he really is intellectual, but the circumstances of his life have put him in the situation he’s in at the moment. For all this woman knows, maybe he really does have big goals and aspirations and is just working his way up the ladder. She’ll never know because instead of getting to know him, she looked down upon him.

Secondly, this kind of double standard really needs to stop. Women get pissed off, and rightly so, when men judge them based on their looks. Just because a woman is stacked and has blond hair doesn’t mean she’s a bimbo. Women have fought hard to overcome that kind of stereotypical judgment. And yet, for some reason, it’s perfectly okay for a woman to judge a man’s character based on his profession and the size of his wallet?

Maybe this guy worked two mediocre jobs, but at least he’s working. And he seems willing to work two jobs to cover his financial bases, which is responsible. So why does this women feel the need to make fun of him? He seems, from the story, to be a hard working guy trying to make it, which is a lot more than you could say for a lot of other guys out there.

It’s all right there in the opening paragraph: “and I envisioned a well-educated professional. I have an MBA, and that’s just the kind of man I was looking for.” Not only is this woman basically pre-judging men based on their education, but she’s also claiming that her education instantly makes her better than other people. She’s apparently turned on by intellect, but then makes fails to realize that education is a poor marker of one’s intellect. Which makes me think she’s really only attracted to the image or trappings of a traditionally successful man–not the man himself, which seems about as blatantly superficial as one could get.

What if…

I’ve been reading A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss (I left the book in my office, though, so I won’t be finishing it this weekend and posting about it). As I was reading it the other day, I had a sudden thought. It’s more poetry than science, but I think it’s still fun to imagine.

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That’s what happens in the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, when two particles accelerated close to the speed of light smash into each other. The very purpose of this whole machine is to better understand how our universe was made by recreating conditions similar to those at the beginning of the universe (or at least the universe as we know it). So if we’re recreating the conditions of the big bang and all of those elementary particles, what if…

…every time we did this we were creating a new universe?

I know it sounds fanciful, but we’re essentially creating a bunch of little big bang approximations in the LHC. What if each one of those resulted in a tiny universe? Sure, they only exist for a brief flicker of time–but that’s our time. Time in that new tiny universe might behave differently. Perhaps what amounts to only a fraction of a nanosecond for us amounts to trillions of years in the tiny universe. Perhaps in that one fraction of time for us, entire galaxies and civilizations are born and ponder their own existence and then fade away. Perhaps our own universe and our own big bang are merely the products of a similar experiment happening in another universe. Maybe our entire existence is data to some scientist in another universe.

Problems with a literal Adam and Eve

Christians who take the bible literally often have a hard time explaining something to non-believers, and it has to do with these two people:

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As any good Christian will tell you, these are the first two humans that ever existed. Most people in this country–religious or not–are familiar with the basic premise of this story: god creates man, men gets lonely so god creates woman from man’s rib, talking snake tricks the two into eating forbidden fruit representing knowledge, and the two are cast from paradise. You know, typical love story.

What this story leaves out if you read the actual text is one minor detail: If every human that has ever existed originated from these two, why are we not all genetically fucked up mutant cousins? Some people might be tempted to say that there must have been other people, other tribes, that their offspring mated with. The problem with this explanation for people who read the bible literally is that there’s no room for this idea. It’s abundantly clear in the bible that Adam and Eve are the first people God creates. Eve is even referred to as “the mother of mankind.” Entire passages in Genesis are dedicated to “so and so begat so and so.” The only explanation for this with a literal interpretation is that Adam and Eve had kids, grandchildren, etc and it was just one giant familial orgy with brothers and sisters screwing grandchildren and mothers and what have you.

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Obviously, modern science has a lot of problems with this. That much inbreeding will yield crippling genetic anomalies in a relatively short period of time–certainly faster than the 6,000 years creationists think we’ve been on the planet. Just look at various royal families and how hemophilia and other genetic disorders run or ran rampant within them. That’s because royals were only allowed to breed with other royals, and this resulted in some, uh, double dipping into the gene pool. And that gene pool was even larger than the one we’re presented with in the bible–just two people.

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Hell, even before modern science, people realized that inbreeding–especially to as large an extent as apparently takes place in the bible–is a really bad idea. Do you ever wonder why incest is an almost universal taboo among cultures worldwide? It’s because even before people understood the biology of reproduction and genetics, they could plainly see that sexing up your son or brother resulted in some pretty fucked up babies. You don’t even need a scientific background to understand that this is a bad idea and that it’s extremely unlikely that such severe inbreeding over thousands of years could result in viable human beings.

So, as usual, creationists have to deny science by totally making something up. In this case, it’s the argument that Adam and Eve were perfect genetic specimens and therefore had no genetic abnormalities to pass on to their children. This is wrong for a variety of reasons, naturally. But one question we’re left with is where then did genetic abnormalities come from under this model? Well sin, of course! It’s all here at this Christian site, christiananswers.net. This site even starts with the assumption that incest on a massive level took place. They also acknowledge that in the present day it’s a bad idea for such incest to take place because of the inevitable genetic consequences. Their explanation?

Adam and Eve did not have accumulated genetic mistakes. When the first two people were created, they were physically perfect. Everything God made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), so their genes were perfect—no mistakes! But, when sin entered the world (because of Adam—Genesis 3:6, Romans 5:12), God cursed the world so that the perfect creation then began to degenerate, that is, suffer death and decay (Romans 8:22). Over thousands of years, this degeneration has produced all sorts of genetic mistakes in living things.

This is such a terrible explanation for a variety of reasons (aside the the implication that the “curse” resulting from our sin is the “punishment” that we’re no longer allowed to sleep with our family members). First and foremost, Adam and Eve were not perfect. Just on the whole, I would say that two people who were dumb enough to be tricked by a talking snake–unless talking animals were a common thing back then–are far from perfect specimens. But moreover, “perfect” is an invention here to circumvent science.

Nowhere in Genesis does it say that Adam and Eve were perfect in any capacity. The site even quotes the literal words: “very good.” I’m sorry, but very good and perfect are not the same thing. They do not convey even remotely similar ideas. Perfect would indicate that something is flawless, while very good leaves a lot of room for flaws. Getting 100% on an exam is perfect-no errors! Getting a 95% on the same exam is a very good score, but still means that there are errors. The bible’s own text doesn’t support this explanation of perfection. It’s purely wishful thinking on the part of the creationist.

The second part about degradation over time leading to genetic mistakes is at least partially accurate. Yes, genes degrade over time and that causes lots of problems. But it’s not due to sin. I almost don’t know how people could be this ignorant. Sin does not cause genetic degradation. We know what causes genetic degradation and we know what causes errors. Science has shown conclusively that the quality and condition of our genes are affected by several factors: telomeres, damage from solar radiation, transcription and translation errors, free radicals, and epigenetics. None of these things has anything to do with moral behavior or a creator. And by the way, these are all things you can test and observe with your own eyes, in case there are any creationists reading this. In fact, let me launch into a little explanation or lesson here in case there are people who doubt the validity of science and embrace the biblical story.

Every chromosome–those things where your genetic information is stored–has telomeres. Think of a telomere as that little plastic thing on the end of your shoelace. Without the plastic cap thingy, the end of your shoelace becomes frayed and damaged and eventually the whole thing unravels. That’s exactly how telomeres protect your DNA. Unfortunately, lots of things and natural aging damages telomeres over time until eventually that can’t do as good a job protecting the integrity of your DNA and you get errors. It has nothing to do with sin.

I think we all know, even creationists, that radiation causes genetic abnormality. And you know what the biggest source of radiation is? THE SUN. That’s why skin cancer is such a big problem–because there’s no escaping the freakin’ sun. And guess what? Radiation damage is cumulative–all the damage adds up over time. The more you’re exposed, the more genetic damage. Now ask yourself: is the sun the result of sin? No, of course not. This just a natural consequence of living in this universe, and it is undoubtedly something that Adam and Eve and all their messed up mutant children would have experienced.

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Transcription and translation errors occur when your body attempts to read the information in your DNA and make use of it, but screws up somewhere along the way. Your body uses your DNA to make proteins, and proteins are responsible for you being you: you’re comprised of proteins, proteins do a lot of chemical work in your body, etc. But just like sometimes our minds transpose words or letters when writing or reading, so too does the body. And this results in a different blueprint, if you will, for the body to operate on. And voila, a mutation has occurred. But this isn’t because of sin, and it isn’t a punishment. In fact, without these errors, genetic variety wouldn’t be possible, and genetic variety (as even the Christian site acknowledges) is what keeps us all from being retarded cousins. So how could the very thing that ultimately ends up saving our genetic bacon be a punishment for sin?

Free radicals. You probably hear that you should eat more anti-oxidants. Well, that’s sound advice, because anti-oxidants help neutralize the activity of free radicals in the body. Free radicals are atoms or molecules that have an open covalent bond, and essentially go around stealing electrons from other atoms and molecules. So if a free radical steals the electron from some structure your body needs, you have now experienced what scientists call oxidative damage. Electrons are part of the building blocks of matter, and you can’t go around willy-nilly removing the very things the matter you’re composed of is made of without incurring damage. But again, this is not the result of sin. Free radicals are produced in lots of ways, and not even necessarily by the human body. Moreover, the processes that result free radicals within your body are metabolic processes–the ones that give your the energy and raw materials to live. Again, you biologically need this process…so how could it be a punishment for sin?

Epigenetics. This last one is the newest idea here, and basically boils down to the fact that things in the environment affect which genes are or aren’t expressed within your body. How much sleep you get, famine, water and air quality, even how much physical touch you got as a baby, all affect which genes in your body get turned on and off. And then guess what? Those genes are passed on to your kids in the inactivated or activated form! Again, the things that cause this are not the result of sin. The amount of sleep you get each night has nothing to do with morality or what someone did thousands of years ago.

I think it’s also important to note that as long as Adam and Eve and all their descendants lived on the same planet we do, there is no way that they could have avoided experiencing these things. This means that the moment Adam and Eve began to exist, they were no longer “perfect” genetically speaking, because they would have been subject to all of these things. There was no “perfect” DNA in the first place as long as they were hit by the rays of the sun, slept, ate, and their cells divided. Otherwise known as being “alive.” This necessitates repeating: anyone alive experiences genetic abnormality simply by being alive and subject to the natural world. And even if you do believe that Adam and Eve were perfect, you’d have to then believe that once they fell from grace or were expelled from paradise they were no longer protected from the natural processes of the world, so they still would have experienced genetic abnormality before, during, and after having kids. Which means they would have passed all their imperfect DNA on to their children, and so on down the line. So you see, there is no scenario where perfect DNA existed, and this model means that we should all look roughly like this now:

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Probably even worse, actually. You see, the longer someone is alive, the more of these natural processes they will experience. That’s why you’re much more likely to get cancer as an 80 year old than as a 5 year old. And given the fact that according to the bible all of these inbreeding people lived for like 900 years, they would have been accumulating about 12x the amount of genetic anomalies and damage that someone today would have.

Nothing about this creationist explanation makes sense. There is no biblical evidence that Adam and Eve had perfect genes. Sin is a poor explanation of our current genetic state because a lot of the processes that damage us are perfectly natural and occur everywhere in the universe and some are even beneficial to us. In fact, life couldn’t exist without a lot of those “errors” or “curses.” Life needs genetic diversity, and the way we get that is through a genetic error. Sometimes genetic traits that seem like a curse can even be beneficial. Did you know that people with sickle cell disease are more resistant to malaria because of it? The bible is a terrible place to get explanations for the natural world, and I think that this whole theory behind Adam and Eve this is pretty clear evidence of that.

Comets and asses

Two things happened this week. One of them was a scientific achievement that advances human knowledge, and one of them was a giant butt. Which one do you think America cared about more?  Screenshot_2014-11-14-21-41-09

So yeah, this happened. And on Kim Kardashian’s official Facebook page, as you can see, it garnered over 260k likes. Oh, and also we landed a space probe on a comet for the first time ever. No big deal.

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This is only the first time in history we’ve seen the surface of a comet. This mission might provide answers to questions about our solar system and our very own planet. So you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if tons of people–what?! Only 5.6k likes? Okay…fine, maybe the ESA doesn’t have the greatest of Facebook presences. But what about more popular science sites on FB, like I fucking love science? Surely when they posted about Philae and Rosetta, people flocked to it!

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That was the most popular post about Philae and Rosetta and the ESA mission, and it only has 150k likes. A hundred thousand more people were interested in a celebrity ass than a scientific milestone. That might not seem like a lot of people, but think of how many politicians are elected by much slimmer margins. 

Okay, Facebook isn’t the only social media site out there. There’s also twitter. So let’s look at that. Here’s something from the ESA and Philae:

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I think this bears repeating: this is the first time human eyes have seen what the surface of a comet looks like. Almost 9k likes. Okay. And then there’s this:

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Kim K’s baby eating hot chocolate. Almost 30k likes. More than three times as many likes as a significant scientific and human milestone. Let that sink in.

So why is this important? Because this is it, people. This is America. If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with our country, ta-da.

It’s why, when ranked internationally, American students come in at or below average in math and science testing. In recent data our students failed to crack the top 20 in science, math, and reading. But there is a further implication here.

This is why the problem with scientific literacy in America is never going to get better. Science can’t compete. I applaud people like Bill Nye, Brian Greene, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson for the wonderful books they turn out on current scientific advancements and ideas for consumption by the general public. But books aren’t going to reach the people we need to influence the most–our youth. Today’s kids spend 7.5 hours per day consuming media (TV, social networking, gaming, and music). Or, put another way, they spend virtually all of their free time NOT reading. 

If science wants to make any sort of meaningful impact on future generations, they’ll have to do so over social media. There’s literally no other way to reach children and adolescents. But science is being drowned out. Kim Kardashian has 24 million Facebook fans. If you add up NASA, CERN, the ESA, Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Dawkins fans you only get 14.65 million, a little more than half of Kim K’s followers.

Some people might be tempted to say, “So what?” Who cares if kids aren’t interested in a comet? Scientifically illiterate kids grow up to become scientifically illiterate adults. And the those adults vote and are elected into office, and do things like ignore global warming, refuse to vaccinate their kids, and try to get creationism taught as science. Scientifically illiterate people don’t innovate, and without innovation the economy is going to tank. Scientific literacy affects every facet of our lives and our future.

Kim Kardashian reaches more kids everyday than science does. For that matter, so does Justin Bieber, whose Facebook page has 76,000,000 likes. One final bit of information.

Between their two twitter accounts, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber reach a combined 82.2 million people–about 25% of all Americans. NASA reaches just under 8 million, or about 2.5% of all Americans.

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Acceptance for the sake of tolerance

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So let’s talk about something that happened on this blog recently. I had an exchange with another blogger, a regular on this site. This particular blogger and I do not see eye to eye on religious or scientific matters. I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, and I’ll usually do my best to hear people out on things I disagree with, and I’m willing to put my own beliefs and practices under the microscope. However, this last exchange resulted in me doing something I thought I would never do.

I banned someone from this blog.

I wrestled with the prospect for awhile before I actually did it. Right up until I followed through, I thought that doing so would make me a bad person or some kind of bigot. But then I stopped to think about a few things.

If this were the real world, this person and I would not be friends. We have nothing in common, and I would go so far as to say that this person’s worldview is harmful to society in general. If this person came to my door to “spread the good word” I would close the door on them and that would be it. The bottom line is this: if I wouldn’t tolerate certain things in real life, why would I suddenly do so online, on this blog?

This blog is for me. It’s my platform. It wasn’t created to serve as an outlet for other people to espouse ideas that I find dangerous. And that’s ultimately what solidified my decision. I realized that in every exchange I’ve had with this person, instead of talking about the facts of the matter at hand, we ultimately ended up discussing his beliefs. I was essentially giving him and his ideas free advertisement on this blog.

In the past I’ve written that just because everyone is entitled to free speech doesn’t mean we’re obligated to take every idea seriously or hear everyone out. It was time to start taking my own advice. And I don’t feel bad about it. Disappointed, maybe, that the dialogue between us was never productive. But I have no interest in a battle of wills, or in allowing someone to spread scientific inaccuracies, falsehoods, or religious dogma on this blog. If there’s one thing I can’t stand and that I think is detrimental to the human race, it’s science-deniers.

In case you’re curious, here is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Essentially what it came down to is that I was accused of a bait-and-switch argument because of how I “conflated” things like natural selection and mutation with evolution. In reality, this accusation only carries weight if you change what evolution is. Natural selection, mutation, etc. are all part and parcel of evolution, and to try to separate them has no scientific basis. Then there’s the old tried and true accusation that science requires faith, that subjectivity is a valid scientific argument, etc. Then I’m treated to a marvelous diatribe about how I’m being paradoxical by claiming that evolution happens over time, yet citing “fast” examples. Again, though, this is not mutually exclusive with the idea of evolution: small changes happen “quickly” and add up over long periods of time to create larger changes. This doesn’t seem like a difficult idea. Then there’s a wonderful false equivalency regarding human beings evolving superpowers, etc.

Ironically, all of the arguments presented by this blogger fall exactly in line with the very arguments that the original post dealt with: absolutely none of them deal with objective fact. Instead, what I get the pleasure of dealing with is someone quibbling with me over definitions and whether science requires faith. It especially went sour when this person claimed that only creationists have the clarity of mind to be objective about the world, and that scientists have to do mental gymnastics to make sense of the world.

I don’t know how to deal with that. And more importantly, I don’t know why I should have to. I feel that by just engaging this person’s ridiculous ideas and beliefs, I’m automatically validating them. And I’m not supporting bad ideas anymore just for the sake of being tolerant and open minded. I’ll debate the facts behind a concept or idea with someone gladly. But no longer will I allow this blog to be a platform for sneaky rhetoric, blatant scientific inaccuracies, or biblical arguments.

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God’s Brain

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I just finished reading a book called God’s Brain by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire. McGuire and Tiger are a neuroscientist and an anthropologist, respectively. The subject of the book is obviously religion, but the central question is this: why is religion so ubiquitous? There are 4200 religions in the world; every culture seems to have its own religion. Why? So the authors began to wonder what the common denominator here is. There are many and vast differences between religions. But there must be some underlying principle or mechanism to see them so reliably spring up in every culture on the planet. The answer that they inevitably arrived at is the brain, and that is the conclusion of the book: religion is a product of the brain and not of the divine. Put another way, the source of religion is biology rather than divinity.

Now, a caveat to this post. The authors of this book are not arguing that because the brain creates religion that there is no God. That is not the aim of the book, and the authors make it quite clear that whether or not there is a god is not dependent upon whether or not religion exists. After all, if you believe in god, then you must accept the idea that god existed before religion did; god’s existence does not hinge upon religion.

Moving forward, there are some biological and anthropological premises that we must set up. First, let us talk about religions as institutions. Nearly all religions have several things in common. Rituals are one of these things. Another thing is a supreme being who has a set of rules of laws that we must abide by. Another thing religions have in common are beliefs–a belief in a soul, an afterlife, in sin, etc. These principles will be important later on.

Let us now establish some biological principles. First and foremost, barring congenital anomaly/trauma/disease, all human brains behave according to the same principles. Barring those three exceptions, any brain we randomly select from the population will behave the same way as any other brain we randomly select. What is meant by this? All brains have the same basic functions:

1. To take in sensory information

2. To process and store that information

3. To make a decision based on that information and create a plan accordingly

4. To evaluate the effectiveness of its decisions and actions.

Case in point. I put my hand on a hot stove. My brain receives sensory information. It processes that information as “hot” and “ouch.” My brain decides that this is a bad stimulus, and plans to remove my hand from the stove, which I then do. My brain then receives new information that “hot” and “ouch” are gone, and sees this plan and action as having been successful.

Now let’s talk about stress. Stress is biologically bad for us. Stress depletes the neurotransmitters and hormones that make our brains and our bodies function properly. Stress also has profound physiological effects on our bodies. It can lead to decreased immunity, hypertension, etc. Accordingly, our brains will do their best to avoid or to rectify stress.

More on stress. Stress is unavoidable; everyone will experience stress throughout their lives. Moreover, there are two distinct kinds of stress. There is day to day stress: the bus was late, I was fired from work, my mother is experiencing a chronic illness, etc. This type of stress will eventually end, though: I will find a new job, the bus will be on time tomorrow, and eventually my mother’s illness will resolve. The other kind of stress involves ambiguity and doubt. This kind of stress involves questions or situations that have no resolution: what happens when I die? Why do I exist? Why do bad things happen to good people? And so forth.

This second type of stress is particularly important in the argument that religion is generated by our own brains. Think back to the basic functions of the brain. Its job is to evaluate information, formulate answers and plans, and evaluate its work. The brain cannot do this when it comes to matters involving ambiguity or doubt. This causes stress for the brain. And since stress has severe biological consequences for the brain and the body, the brain will automatically try to avoid this stress. The mitigation of stress is what the authors call brainsoothing.

So how does religion play into this? Religion answers questions that the brain cannot resolve, and thus religions become brainsoothing. Religion provides answers, complete stories, and order in a permanent way. They offset the stress generated by ambiguity and doubt, when the brain receives incomplete information or cannot find information to answer a question. But there are specific features of religion that affect the brain in such a way that the brain comes to rely upon it. Consider reciprocity.

Human beings are social creatures, and you cannot have a functioning society without reciprocity. Reciprocity is how we develop trust in other individuals, and involves a mutual exchange that benefits both parties. In practice, I may bake a loaf of bread for someone who then reciprocates by repairing my shoes. This display shows both individuals that they can trust each other and that this trust will generate a positive outcome. We tend to see people who reciprocate as “good.”

This also extends to religion. The relationship between a deity and its worshipers is a reciprocal one: you follow the rules of the deity, and in turn the deity reciprocates by granting you an eternal afterlife, answering a prayer, etc. Thus, you see the deity as good and trustworthy. Reciprocity pops up again in religion, especially in light of the fact that the human brain mirrors the emotional states of those around it. So when we see people at the Sunday church service who are familiar and who are happy to see us because we all follow the rules and rituals and are trustworthy, our brains are flooded with stress-relieving chemicals. Reciprocity is a brainsoother. When we trust people, we are eliminating doubt and ambiguity surrounding that person, and thus we have alleviated stress. And, crucially, we have formed a positive chemical association with a specific set of actions.

Religion also brainsoothes because it is a social equalizer. Outside of a church, you are unequal to people. There are people who have more authority than us, more money than us, people who are smarter than us, people who are faster than us, taller than us, considered better looking than us, etc. But religion mitigates that inequality by stating that as long as we all follow the rules, god will reward us equally. God does not look more favorably upon those who are more physically attractive or faster or smarter, etc. We are all equal in the eyes of a deity so long as we again follow the rules and stick to the rituals. This equalization is also a form of stress relief, and it is also a form of reciprocity, which the brain likes.

Studies have also shown that people with higher social status have higher levels of serotonin, and that when people change social statuses, so too changes their levels of serotonin. In the context of religion, all members are equal, and your social status rises. You may also be treated differently by people who outside of the religion are superior to you in some way, and when they confer upon you their status within a religion, you also get a serotonin bump. And the brain likes it when we get serotonin increases.

And what about rituals? Why are rituals found throughout every religion? Because rituals are brainsoothers, mitigating stress. For one, they provide a sense of order instead of chaos. They also let us know who we can and can’t trust; people who follow our rituals are more trustworthy and our brains do not need to stress about whether or not this person poses a threat. Rituals are safe, reliable, and predictable, and those are all things that the brain likes. Rituals also increase social interaction. Rituals like baptisms, bar mitvahs, etc. bring people together, which increases our levels of oxytocin and serotonin.

Much in the same way, religious beliefs are important because they are also brainsoothing. They chart the unknown (death, creation) and the future (I believe I will go to heaven, etc)–the main causes of doubt and ambiguity. Religious beliefs allow the brain to complete its four primary functions, and thus relieve stress, which the brain will seek to avoid at all costs. And this, ultimately, explains a lot about why religious belief is so stalwart. Why, when faced with evidence contrary to belief, religious people will do all sorts of mental gymnastics to dismiss the evidence. Their brains literally will not let them do it because to do so would reintroduce ambiguity and uncertainty, and thus reintroduce a profound and chronic stress. Therefore the brain has no choice but to reject any new information–that is literally the easiest and most powerful way to mitigate the stress that the brain actively seeks to avoid or remedy. There is also something to be said about the fact that once the brain makes a decision–that there is a god in this case–there is a biological incentive for it to then totally buy into that belief. If the brain did not 100% buy into the answers that it generated, that might lead to risky behavior and death.

“The brain strongly prefers certainty over uncertainty, resolution over open-mindedness, and balance and symmetry over imbalance and asymmetry,” the authors state. These words ring true. People will more often than not choose the certain thing over the uncertain thing because the brain is risk averse; aversion to risk is a basic survival instinct. We certainly prefer balance and symmetry. People with more symmetrical features are seen by the brain as more attractive. And to be open-minded is to not embrace any one solution, which is a form of ambiguity. And remember, ambiguity = stress.

So, what are we to conclude from all of this? Well, we can conclude several things which lead to a chain of events. We can conclude that the brain does not like stress, and uncertainty causes stress. When the brain is faced with a situation for which it cannot find an answer, in order to mitigate that stress, it will literally make up an answer. And since there is nothing in the physical word for the brain to use to formulate an answer, it will jump to a metaphysical answer, one that it cannot disprove and thus one that permanently alleviates stress. This is most likely why religions develop and why they are so common. Aside from providing certainty, religions also incorporate things like rituals which create positive chemical changes in the brain, which further cement the brains decision to accept the answer that religion creates. And for all of these reasons, that is why it is incredibly rare for someone to leave a religion or to change a religion–because to do so would cause a doubt or ambiguity that the brain could not resolve.


Now for my own two cents. I think that there are several important things to take away from this. First of all, this not an indictment of religion. The purpose of this book isn’t to say, “Well religions are all made up and so they’re pointless.” The book emphasized that there are more positives than negatives to religion, certainly in biological terms. But also social terms, like charity. The Catholic church, after all, is the biggest supplier of education and healthcare around the world. So the purpose of this book and this post is not to denigrate religion or to incite people to abandon their own beliefs.

Nor is this an indictment of believers. I think that non-believers should take great care to avoid associating religious belief with intelligence and more importantly with intent. If this theory is true, religion is not the byproduct of a feeble mind, but rather the natural tendency of a completely normal one. In light of this theory, I would hope that the vitriol and animosity between the two camps would subside. Much more empathy is deserved on behalf of the believer when  he or she is presented with and rejects science; the religious person’s inclination to distrust or dismiss science is not a willful act of spite or ignorance, but rather a natural reflex of the brain.

In this sense, religious followers are not “choosing to be ignorant,” as many non-believers would claim. I think there’s a strong propensity for us to look at religious people and say, “How can you not believe that?! You can see it with your own two eyes!” This theory, though, would provide an adequate explanation for the phenomenon of rejection of sensory experience and direct observation. They are not choosing to be ignorant; rather their brains are generating a conclusion which eliminates biological distress. Certainly, people can feel “charity” highs because of empathy and mirror neurons, and this would seem to extend to religion as well. There are chemical processes created by certain things pervasive in all religions which create a positive feedback loop of sorts. And since one of the brain’s functions is to evaluate the success of its decisions and actions, this positive chemical response would create the evaluation of, “Yep, religion was the correct solution!”

So why, then, do some people not require religion? Why do some people leave religion? The authors did not really cover this topic, since that isn’t what this book is about. The book isn’t about why people don’t believe, it’s about why they do believe, and why so many of them believe (80-90% of the world, by the estimate of the authors).

I would postulate, though, that we non-believers aren’t somehow “above” the believers. After all, if this theory is correct, our brains would be subject to the same stress aversion to the same questions. We just get our brainsoothing in a different way. I suppose to us, science is the brainsoother. Science doesn’t necessarily provide instant answers, but it offers the promise that all questions do have answers and that we are capable of finding those answers. In this sense, we have soothed the uncertainties of our brains: we may not have an answer, but the acknowledgment that there is a tangible answer somewhere to be found is soothing. Hope, it seems, is central to believers and nonbelievers alike: believers hope that by following the rules and rituals that they will be rewarded with answers to their questions, and nonbelievers hope that there is an objective answer to every question. At the risk of drawing ire from the skeptical community, I suppose in this way religion and science really are alike. They both satisfy the same biological need in our brains.

The Big Tiny

This past weekend I read a book by Dee Williams called The Big Tiny, which documents her endeavors to build a tiny house. I bought the book because I recognized Williams from a Netflix documentary on tiny houses that I had watched a month or two ago. I’m very interested in tiny homes, and I remember liking the interview with Williams. She did a wonderful job not only documenting her physical efforts to build a tiny home all by herself, but also weaving in bits and pieces of philosophy that really resonated with me. But perhaps I should back up for a moment.

I’ve been interested in the idea of tiny houses for quite some time now. Tiny homes are exactly what they sound like–incredibly small homes. Micro-homes, if you prefer. They vary in size, but the premise is creating a small yet livable space that can exist off the grid. Most tiny homes are solar powered, collect rain water, and their small size makes them much easier to heat and cool. My interest in tiny homes came to be for a variety of reasons, the first of which is economic. Tiny homes are very affordable. I also like the idea of a house with less environmental impact, one that doesn’t encroach on nature so much. Here is a great website with some floor plans. In general, though, a tiny house might look something like this:

This one is 370 sq ft
This one is 370 sq ft
This one is only 161 sq ft
This one is only 161 sq ft

You get the general idea. These houses can be built on a trailer or on a foundation, your choice. You can build them yourself (they offer classes) or you can hire someone to build them for you. And you can customize them however you want. But as Williams argues, there are much better reasons to live in a tiny house.

Williams started her journey like the average American: in a 3 bedroom house and up to her eyeballs in debt. And she spent most of her spare time remodeling, rewiring, and replumbing her house. She did all of this because that’s just what we expect people to do once they become an adult: buy a house and fill it with stuff.

But then Williams was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and her entire worldview changed. Time was what became most precious to her, and her relationships with family and friends. And she realized that what was holding her back from really enjoying those things fully was her house. She spent all of her time working to pay it off, fixing it up, and filling it with things. So much so that she had neglected the things in life that really matter. Her solution was building the tiny house.

And build it she did, on her own with her bare hands. Her tiny house is 84 sq ft–not much bigger than a parking space. It doesn’t have running water and it has a composting toilet. Williams can now write out all of her worldly possessions on one piece of paper. She’s completely debt free. And since she’s debt free and the tiny house costs next to nothing to run, she can work part time. And she’s free to spend the rest of her time doing the things she enjoys with the people she loves.

I really identify with the philosophy that Williams laid out in her book. I do think that we tend to place too much value on material goods and following the norms that society presses upon us. Now, to be clear, this book and this way of thinking is not an indictment of capitalism. Nor is it a plea for us all to become hippies and stop working. What this philosophy wants of us is simple.

Live an intentional life.

You don’t have to stop consuming totally, but be intentional when you buy things. That’s all. George Carlin once had a bit about how houses were just places to keep your stuff. And I think he was on to something there, and that something overlaps with what Williams has outlined with her book. Don’t waste all of your time and money trying to keep up with the neighbors or you’ll just end up bankrupt and buried under a pile of stuff you don’t even use. And let’s all be honest–most of us probably don’t even use half of the things we own. It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.

And this isn’t to say that money doesn’t matter. But it isn’t what is important. Being rich isn’t important, ultimately. So much of our lives are spent in pursuit of money. And to what end? Get this raise, earn that promotion, get more money and buy more things. Society tells us that this is normal, and that this is good. But is it?

Where does it all end? Quite literally on our deathbeds. And what do you think the majority of people say they regret with their dying breaths? That they wished they could have worked one more day at the office? That it all would have been worth it if only they’d had a bigger boat? That they regretted not investing more in their 401k? Nobody says those things, yet that is what society tells us we should spend our lives doing.

When people know they’re going to die, they wish they could have more time with their grandchildren or spouse. They wish they could have seen Europe. To hell with their economic needs, they want their human desires and needs fulfilled. They want more time to laugh and cry and hug people and impart their wisdom to someone. In the end, it’s not about having a fat wallet or cool toys, it’s about being rich in spirit.

Death is a morbid topic, but really isn’t that what all of us want, to have a good death? And in order to have a good death, doesn’t one need to have had a good life? Ask yourself whether you do things intentionally, or whether you’re just going through the motions. Ask yourself if you could do more with less. Ask yourself what matters the most to you in life and then figure out what you need to make that happen. You might just find that by downsizing, the world gets a whole lot bigger.