Shadows of God and the Privilege of Existence            

“It is the purpose ... of religion ... to reunite one with the Reality one has thus lost sight of due to one’s seeking happiness where it is not to be found  ...  in the shadow’s and illusions of one’s own mind.”

    - from Entering the Stream by Bhikku Mangalo

“The Brain is just the weight of God--
For--Heft them--Pound for Pound--
And they will differ--if they do--
As Syllable from Sound”

    - Emily Dickinson

“Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.

If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering follows,
As the wheel follows the hoof of an ox pulling a cart.

Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.

If one speaks or acts with a serene mind, happiness follows,
As surely as one’s shadow.

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life to tomorrow.

Our life is the creation of our mind.”

    - From the Dhammapada, Buddha’s essential teachings.

“Welcome and congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. 

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had to somehow assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. [Atoms] are mindless particles, and not even themselves alive. Yet somehow, for the period of your existence they will answer to one overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting - fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, slightly disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you.

Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn’t, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.

Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most - 99.99% - are no longer around. Life on Earth, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is excels at promoting life but is even better at extinguishing it.

The average species on Earth lasts for only about 4 million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to change everything about yourself - shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything - - and to do so repeatedly. That is much easier said than done, because the process of change is random. So at various periods over the last 3.8 billions years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in tree, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of the evolutionary shifts, and you might now be licking algae from cave wall or lolling walrus like on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole on top of your head before diving 60 feet for a mouthful of delicious sand worms.

Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older that the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstance to live long enough to do so. Not one of your prurient ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result - eventually, astoundingly, and all to briefly - in you.”


My first job in education after college was in my hometown, as a permanent substitute for a teacher who was quite ill. After four years of studying psychology, I unexpectedly found myself teaching physical education. 

A fellow has to pay the bills. 

I did this for an entire semester, and at first I really enjoyed it. I played sports with the students each day, and many of the activities were outdoors. For a month or so this was heavenly - I was in great shape, had a nice tan, was making a bit of money, and the kids were attentive, well behaved, and treated me with respect. But though it was great fun for a while, the time soon came when I was bored out of my mind with the minimal demands of being a substitute PE teacher. I quit, took a job working on a river boat at a better salary, and soon had enough money to work towards my goal of getting a Master’s degree.

Some twenty years later, I was visiting my hometown, when a man that I didn’t recognize approached me and asked if I was Mr. Fisher. I responded in the affirmative and he told me that I had been his PE teacher in High School and that he wanted to let me know that he and his friends enjoyed the atmosphere in the class, appreciated the way I treated them fairly, and that they considered me the favorite teacher they had ever had.

This is the sort of thing, as you might imagine, that a teacher lives for. Teachers are an altruistic lot, hoping we might somehow help a young person grow and develop. Hearing this praise from my old student had me floating on air, thinking to myself how nice it was that I had made an impression, that I had done some good in my beloved profession.

We shared small talk for a bit and it was time to go. As he turned to leave, he recounted a final memory of his time in my PE class. “My buddies and me,” he said with a big grin on his face, “used to go behind the shed by the football field every day during your class and smoke pot.”

This might account for why I was their favorite teacher. It wasn’t because I was the nurturing educator I pictured in my mind moments earlier, but because I was apparently the most oblivious person to ever take classroom attendance, and the students associated me with the splendid buzz they had going on a daily basis. I had never felt so deflated. Where I had perceived an orderly, respectful educational experience, a teenage bong party had actually existed. For all I knew, they might have been wearing togas instead of gym clothes.

I tell this story as a reminder that life is often an exercise in congratulating ourselves for thinking we know what is going on, yet, more often than we care to admit,  we discover we had it all wrong.

We find ourselves this morning in a church environment, an environment  where men of the cloth usually sermonize on the nature of life with unsettling certainty.

It’s a bit different in our church. We are uncomfortable with messages transcribed by self appointed proxies of a supernatural being. We are wired a bit differently than that. We are more comfortable with uncertainty than others, especially if the alternative is to live our lives based on false assumptions. This, of course, is a source of pride.

As I thought about my experience as a young, blindered teacher, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the creature with the biggest brain on earth is so often wrong about really important things. This morning I am going to share some thoughts and ideas about why this may be so. 

There is an obvious tradition of including a moral lesson in sermons. If you will indulge me for a bit by listening to me speak about things I just admitted I know very little about, I will act on this tradition by taking the bold step of giving you some guidelines for living a righteous life.

Plato’s Parable of the Cave is one of the great and instructive mental exercises of all time. Those ancient Greeks, whose thought processes were unburdened by exposure to reality TV and tweeting, surely knew how to ponder big ideas. For those of you needing a refresher, Plato asked us to imagine a cave in which people were kept captive their entire lives. A fire is built in such a way that the captives can’t see it. Actors, also hidden from the captives, interact by the fire in such a way as to throw shadows on the back wall of the cave. All the captives ever experience are the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. That is their reality. That is what they believe that the world has to offer in the way of substance and experience. Plato is asking us to question the nature of reality. If all you ever saw were shadows how could your reality consist of anything but shadows? He obviously felt that most people went through their lives without grasping the true nature of existence and the cave was a metaphor for this condition. He believed that people are captives of their own illusions. He went so far as to infer that captives that left the shadows would be so overwhelmed by the true nature of reality that they would choose to return to the shadows.

When we think about the nature of existence, as humans in churches so often do, we might ask ourselves the relationship of the thinking process to Plato’s shadows. 

Thinking, of course, involves using the central nervous system. To ponder the cosmos is to use the most remarkable conglomeration of cells in Creation, the human cerebrum, the machinery of our mind.

As we go about our daily lives, our sense organs gather sensory information and our brains compares that sensory input to previous sensory input, to previous experiences, to experiences we have learned about from listening to others.  Humans are mainly visual creatures and much of our sensory input is visual in nature, sounds follow closely behind, followed by smell and touch and so forth. We take all that sensory information and look for patterns to emerge, molding those patterns into insight and conclusions about the nature of our life.

Our understanding of the world starts with our senses.

But just how dependable are our senses and our brain’s ability to process the information our senses accumulate? As it turns out, the very construction of our sense organs makes them not so dependable at all. 

Had my sense organs more depth and breadth, I might have seen or heard those students in the shadows of the storage shed, giggling at my obliviousness. As it is, our eyes are limited in the distance we can see, and further, our eyes can only see the narrow band of wavelengths from 400 to 700 nanometers. Others types of electromagnetic waves beyond that range and thus outside the visible spectrum include, X-rays, UV, gamma rays, radio waves, microwaves, infrared rays, and so on. If our eyes were constructed differently our visual universe might include these wavelengths and make for a distinctly different visual reality. Our hearing is limited to a narrow band of wavelengths and amplitude, making us inferior to many other animals in our ability to sense sounds. Smell, taste, and the kinesthetic senses also are limited to a narrow range of perceptions, that, if expanded would again change our world in remarkable ways. Imagine a world in which these very real forms of energy beyond the range of our perceptual apparatus could be perceived. Some people don’t have to imagine an expanded perceptual existence. Their are people on earth afflicted with a disorder called synesthesia. They can smell sounds, hear images, see colors in their mind when they read, numbers can make them sense tastes.  Their perceptual reality is vastly different than most people, but no less genuine, revealing aspects of the natural world denied to the rest of us. The reality the sense organs reveal is inextricably tied to the brain that processes the perceptual input.

So, if we can only perceive a small amount of the delights of the physical universe, just how reliable are our senses in understanding the cosmos? Professor Carl Woese’s work at the University of Illinois studying the genetic sequences in bacteria show us that life on earth can be divided into 23 groups, only three of which, animals, plants, and fungi, are large enough to be visible to the human eye. The other 20 groups are microscopic in size and as different from each other as humans are from spiders. In fact 80% of the biomass on planet earth is made up of the 20 groups of living things we can’t visually perceive. Four fifths of life, by volume, on this remarkable planet, is beyond our perceptual experience, existing beyond the shadows. You begin to see the difficulty in pondering a cosmos with sense organs that hide the existence of most of Creation from observation. 

Once our senses gather perceptual information our brain goes to work to organize this terribly incomplete information. But again we have issues.

Most of us have played a game called Telephone. It is an exercise in which a story is passed along verbally from person to person, until the last person compares their story to the original. It is always transformed remarkably from the first version, becoming something else completely. 

We have all heard about several witnesses observing a crime and describing what happened in completely different fashions. Their visual perceptions of the incident vary enormously. Even something considered to be a result of the infallible work of God,  the four Gospels, describe the same events, but have significant differences in how those events were perceived and recorded. 

Our interpretations of what our senses perceive vary enormously, so much so as to make any perceptual experience an entirely subjective phenomena. Our brain often sees what it wants to see, applying a personal script of biases and preconceived notions to the information it gathers. It is simply impossible, as physicists suggest, to separate the observer from the event.

The construction of the brain often determines how this limited perceptual information we gather is processed. The late comedian Richard Jeni said that the difference between being single and being married is the difference between being lonely and being irritated. Some fascinating research into brain structure helps explain why men and women can so effectively irritate each other. We know that the brain is bicameral; it has two halves, each processing information in different ways. One side is more logical and verbal, the other side more intuitive and creative. The two halves of the brain communicate via a small piece of tissue known as the corpus callosum. The number of neural pathways in the corpus callosum determines how well the two halves of the brain keep each other informed. 

It turns out that a women’s corpus callosum is significantly thicker than a man’s with a correspondingly larger number of neural pathways. Thus women are more able to multitask - they can write a report, nurture a child, read a book, change a tire, and talk - all at the same time. The verbal and intuitive sides of the female brain maintain a dialogue. The relative dearth of neural pathways in men’s corpus callosum would seem to make them excel at doing one thing at a time. You can test this by trying to engage a man in conversation while he is reading a paper. Once that fails, try exploding a paper bag next to his ear. In either case he will not acknowledge you, indeed will seem incapable of acknowledging you until he finishes his article. So men, as your mate becomes frustrated when you seem unwilling to discuss your relationship while you are watching ESPN, counsel her to count her blessings that she was born with such a splendid corpus callosum, and ask her to pity you for the atrophied corpus callosum that you and other men are cursed with.

 But wait - not all men are so cursed. An interesting adjunct to this research is that gay men often have larger corpus callosums that even women. As we ponder such giants of creativity and expression as da Vinci, Alexander the Great, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Tchaikovsky, Michaelangelo, and countless others, the historical record shows us that gay men have been inordinately represented in cutting edge fashion, design, art, theater, music, writing, and other creative activities.

Since a larger corpus callosum allows the emotional side of the brain and the verbal side of the brain to better communicate, this may explain the depth and breadth of the creative achievements of gay men. Further, it may illuminate the phenomena reported by my female acquaintances that gay men excel as friends and soul mates. Their brains, even more so than women, are wired to verbalize about feelings and emotions. This is in stark contrast to heterosexual men whose brains are wired to laugh at farts. 

Don’t blame me - it’s all my corpus callosum’s fault.

My point in these observations is that the structure of the brain itself affects how we process information, dramatically affecting how we view our world and how we interact with the world. 

Another observation about the brain: tiny imbalances in brain chemistry can have profound influences on the mental processing patterns of a human and distort their ability to reason. As an example, a microscopic shift in the amount of the chemical serotonin at the synaptic level can lead to anxiety and depression, mental states that pointedly affect ones worldview. The most prescribed drugs in the world are serotonin regulators, an indicator of the endemic nature of how synaptic chemistry affect thought and behavior.

I’d like to move on to a different but no less important concept related to the brain. It’s this: The brain actively creates reality. In other words, the mind has a mind of it’s own. This pertains to a fundamental aspect of our brains. The brain hates unfinished business. It hates it so much that, if business remains unfinished for too long, or is related to a particularly emotional situation, the brain will endeavor to bring about closure any way it can. The German’s have a word called Gestalt that references this attribute of the brain. Gestalt means something like “a unified whole”. The brain is so infatuated with Gestalt that it insists upon it.

A few examples:
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the .....
If you are like virtually every human in the english speaking world, you completed that little ditty in your head. You had to say the word Spain in your mind. Your brain insisted upon it.

Have you ever tried to remember the name of an actor in a movie and been unable to remember it? Did you feel anxiety and discomfort until it came to you? Think about it - it literally made you uncomfortable to not have closure on this meaningless issue.

Have you ever woke up in the night, unable to sleep because you were thinking about the task you finished at work? No, you woke up because of the tasks that were unfinished. No closure, no completion, no gestalt, no sleep.

Need I mention the heartache and suffering brought about by unresolved issues of romance, family, economics, health? If these things aren’t resolved the human brain rebels by creating physical and emotional stress that can literally cripple a person, and send them scurrying to the doctor for serotonin regulators to get the synaptic chemistry back in shape.

Take out the insert in today’s order of service and play along with me in a visual exercise illustrating just how much the brain hates unfinished business. (do exercise on blind spot created by optic nerve) As I said, and as this illustration of how your brain fills in an empty spot in your field of vision shows, the brain will actively construct reality if unfinished business is dramatic enough. The brain will literally create something from nothing if it deems it necessary.

More about the brain. Did you know that some theorists think that awareness itself is a mathematical equation? 

We now know two important numbers related to animals with central nervous systems. We can determine the amount of information stored in an animal's genes, as well as the amount of information that can be stored in an animal's cerebrum. Theorists suggest that a magic moment occurs in the evolutionary process when the amount of information that can be stored in the animal’s cerebrum becomes greater than the amount stored in an animal’s genes. This, they suggest, when the processing device of an animal has more capacity than the blueprint for the animal, is the remarkable moment when awareness of self began to occur. Whether by natural selection or an odd genetic mutation in the past, humans have the highest gene to cerebrum ratio of any creature on earth - 10 to the 10th power bits of information in their genes and 10 to the 13th power capacity  of bits of information in their cerebral cortex,. Could it be that humans wring their hands over their place in the cosmos and stare at their belly buttons simply because their brain has more capacity than their genes? 

As geneticist Matt Ridley points out in his book NATURE VIA NURTURE, for the first time in almost 4 billion years a species on this planet has read it’s own recipe. He is speaking of the human genome project, in which we are being given a window into the ultimate nature of why humans are as they are. Did you know that they recently isolated the gene for shyness? Yes, shyness isn’t learned, it is there in your genes, another example of how the apparatus determines our reality. The human genome project even tells us where we came from. Genetic research on mitochondrial DNA suggests that every single human in the world descended from one woman who lived in Africa’s Rift Valley about 80,000 years ago. Every single person alive today has the same common ancestor. We know now how closely related we all are and this reinforces how we differ in only the most superficial ways. Go back a few thousand generations and we all have the same picture of grandma on our mantle. 

In his book, EMPATHIC CIVILIZATION, Jeremy Rifkin examines recent research that seems to answer the age old question of whether mankind is inherently good, inherently bad, or a blank slate. No less that the Christian bible, the source of cosmic guidance for over a billion humans, places it’s bet on mankind being inherently bad, a result of Eve’s behavior in the Garden of Eden. For many years scientists looked at humans as a tabula rasa, neither inherently good or bad, but shaped into one or the other by life’s experiences. As Rifkin points out, current research makes a strong case that natural selection long ago favored mammals with an inborn sense of empathy, because empathy has such important qualities for survival. Being a good person, and having empathy for the well being of others, the research seems to indicate, has helped our species to succeed more dramatically than any other in the history of the earth.

Consider this. Scientists, in their wisdom, have even studied the physiological and psychological qualities of the hug. Research has shown that a baby that is denied hugging and physical nurturing will actually have a lower IQ than a baby that is consistently cuddled and hugged. Think about it. Simply hugging your child can make her smarter. Hugging leads to the creation of more neural pathways and synapses and ultimately a greater capacity for learning. Even more importantly, hugging also makes children more emotionally secure than children deprived of this tonic. I like to think we can extrapolate those finding to adults. Had I been hugged more I might not have been so dense regarding what my students were up to behind the athletic field’s storage shed so long ago.

A final bit of research that helps us better understand our place in the universe. Recent research has shown that we each have more bacteria cells in our body than human cells. 99% of the different kinds of genes in our body aren’t ours, but rather come from microbes. These foreign cells are necessary for vital bodily functions like digestion. Without the bacteria in our digestive track we would quickly die. Bacteria "rule this planet, including our body," said Jeroen Raes, a researcher at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany. "I think it's important that people realize that we are not really human - we are a walking colony of bacteria and they are crucial for our well being and health." 

This scientific discovery forces us to face an astonishing truth. Much of what we are isn’t us. A human, each of us in this room, is a construct of many different creatures, symbiotic, an exercise in group consciousness,  a pantheistic biomass. The consciousness that separates humans from all other creatures on earth cannot exist unless our physical body hosts billions of microbes. No microbes, no us.

Now imagine this - you are an introspective sort with an empty void in your soul. You are wondering about the universe. Where did it come from? What is its purpose? What is your place in the universe? Why do we suffer? Where do you go when you die? Is there an answer anywhere to help you solve your suffering, solve your many problems? You don’t know? Your life has no meaning? That is rather fundamentally disconcerting is it not?

But suppose I told you that the universe began a few thousand years ago, created by an omnipotent God. The universe’s purpose is to serve man, and man’s purpose is to serve God. God sent his son to earth some time ago to save mankind from their naturally sinful state, and if you simply accept this and serve God properly, you will live with your loved ones, after death, for all eternity, experiencing perpetual joy and bliss. 

Don’t you feel better already? Such is the sweet release of closure, of gestalt. 

I propose to you that the solutions to life’s puzzles offered by organized religions exist not because they provide a reasoned explanation of the cosmos, but rather because the brains of the folks involved need closure on this important matter and get it the best way they can - by embracing a culturally acceptable explanation, no matter how faulty, that brings about the closure their brains insist upon. This supernatural explanation of the cosmos has the ancillary quality of allowing those that embrace it to look in the mirror and see a spectacularly righteous soul looking back at them. Imagine the comfort that set of circumstance provides to the helpless sinner.

In actuality, our perceptual apparatus is oblivious to most of the universe, what perceptual information our limited sense organs provide us is analyzed by a brain with severe limitations, a brain that actively distorts what it processes, a brain that can go haywire from the most minute disturbances in chemistry at the synaptic level. A brain that can construct it’s own reality. And most of the body the brain guides is made of microbes that aren’t really you. 

You begin to understand now how your neighbor can think a short tempered man in the clouds made you and watches over you and occasionally drops frogs out of the sky on Egyptians. It is much easier to believe than the truth. Incredibly, the truth is more magnificent, more awe inspiring, more unfathomable than the myths that have sprung from man’s imagination.

William of Ockham, an English monk from the 14th century, is perhaps my biggest hero. William managed to deduce one of the most remarkably transformational ideas in human history. His idea is called Ockham’s Razor.  

This is it: When trying to solve a problem, the best solution is the one that can solve the problem with the fewest assumptions.  This modest idea, that the simplest solution is the best solution, is the foundation for all science.

As an example, frogs bring dropped from the sky on Egyptians by an angry God requires a rather large amount of unprovable assumptions wouldn’t you say? That someone with a vivid imagination might have made the story up requires little in the way of assumptions.

Science can’t tell all of life’s secrets, some things will remain a mystery forever, but science can surely tell us what things simply can’t be true. Thus, the old supernatural explanations that our ancestors relied on to provide themselves with the comfort and closure our brains demand must fall by the wayside, exposed by the light of day as misguided, unnecessary, and often dangerous myths. 

As Plato predicted, vast numbers of our brethren continue to prefer a life in the shadows of the cave, rejecting the brilliant light of Ockham’s Razor. Let’s not judge them harshly however - they simply can’t help themselves. Remember, the mind has a mind of it’s own.

Our brain and perceptual apparatus’ limitations make the human compulsion for trying to understand the meaning of life absolute folly. We don’t have, and never will have, the mental acuity to figure out why we are here and what our ultimate purpose is. What we do have, because of a million years of natural selection, are the mental faculties to hunt and gather, to build tools to help us hunt and gather and cultivate, we are able to seek a mate, gather in groups and share stories, and most importantly, to comfort each other when the inevitable travails of life find our doorstep. All the things modern man does, from working in offices, to inventing machines, to waging war, to building skyscrapers, to marriage, to sporting events, to gambling boats, are simply variations on these timeless themes.

We are clever enough to realize life is more satisfying if we embrace a set of ideals and values. You have learned that I am skeptical of the idea of a cranky man in the clouds with ten enforced guidelines for living. Embracing His guidelines require a whole lot of unprovable assumptions, and suggest an unflattering insecurity that we might worship someone other than Him. But I promised you at the outset that I would give you lessons to live by, so here is an alternate set of guidelines that I recommend, based on what I have learned in life. Taking William of Ockham’s counsel for simplicity to heart, there are only four, instead of ten, of these guidelines for living.

First - Share hugs extravagantly. It doesn’t hurt anyone, it is comforting, and it might make you smarter.

Second - Acknowledge that the limitations of our brain dictate humility and a sense of humor.

Third - Use your big, clumsy brain to consider the greater good, to consider empathy, in all your thoughts and actions. 
Finally - Thank the cosmos everyday, regardless of your circumstances, for the privilege of experiencing the miracle of life.

Do these things and your life will be satisfying and have meaning. You will have a spring in your step and strangers will comment on the cut of your jib. Avoid them and you will always feel like something is missing from your life - and you know how the brain hates unfinished business.

We may not always be who we assume we are but, regardless of our fundamental nature, we have won the most improbable lottery in the universe. We are the observers of Creation, the luckiest creatures in Creation, blessed beyond belief. 

We are all an integral part of the universe, a part of something majestically bigger than ourselves, briefly dancing in improvised unison on a Pantheistic journey. I believe we can see fleeting glimpses of our true nature, and the true nature of the cosmos, when we look beyond the Shadows cast by Creation, and focus instead on our fellow travelers and the grand privilege of existence.

Go forth and hug.

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