© Doug Rodgers 2004
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 8, 2004

My talk today is designed to stretch your idea of the world and yourself a bit. A wider view of the world is helpful in getting along with things and with each other.


We think that we see the world directly through our eyes, but we don't. What we see is an image created by our mind. If our mind is well trained, then the image will be accurate, but if it isn't, then what we see won't correspond to what is really there or what others see. In extreme cases we call this mental illness.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that we each see the world differently, although we generally agree on the simple physical objects in our ordinary experience. Most of what we think about and talk about, however, isn't physical, it is imaginary. We see and think in concepts, a kind of shorthand that we use for recognition. When we greet each other, we don't see the other person, instead, we "recognize" them, meaning that we identify enough of what we see with our idea of that person, then we stop looking. So, too, with many other things, we don't really see them because we don't look beyond recognition. The image that we recognize is an imaginary one that our mind has created based on our observations of the person, our own experiences, and our prejudices. The image may be fairly accurate if we continue to see the person and pay attention to them, or it may be frozen and wrong.

Our minds are full of other, more complicated concepts, too. Many of them are really very complicated collections of people or ideas, like democrats, democracy, diversity, religion, justice, and laws. The actual situation is so complicated that we can't possibly have a complete understanding, so we use the concept as a short-hand substitute for the real thing. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that we have trouble talking about these things in any cogent manner. When we do talk about such things we tend to do so only with others who share our views. Like a convention, being with others who share our ideas about how things really are, is energizing and exciting, but not much of a learning experience. We have a strong tendency to reinforce each other's stereotypes, rather than to improve the accuracy of our mind's image.

By taking time to more carefully sort out what we know from what we don't know, we have a better chance to deal more effectively with the world and each other. So let's try and sort out some things.

Our World, What we Call the Physical World, is Really a Very Strange Place

Very little of what we know about the physical world is based on what we ourselves have observed. Most of our knowledge has come through others, in school, and from what we read and see on TV and our computers. Unfortunately, a significant part of what we know, or think we know, isn't true, or is in conflict with other things that we have learned. But we usually don't know which parts are true and which aren't, so we gradually sift through what we have learned and refine our image of the world, keeping what holds up to experience and throwing out the rest. Science follows the same process, although in a more disciplined and consistent manner.

Even though our individual experiences are limited, we have access to the experiences of others which have been recorded for us. Over time, those experiences have been digested, correlated with each other and summarized, so that today we can benefit from a tremendous store of knowledge. Our ancestors didn't have this advantage.

Even though explanations of how the world works change as we learn more, the careful observations that people have made in the past are still valid today. The physical world is not capricious; it behaves the same way today as yesterday. This means that knowledge can be built up by many people over generations. Although Newton's laws of gravitation have been superceded by Einstein's theory of Relativity, Newton's observations are still true and his laws work well in the situations for which they were created.

It also means that the case against physical miracles is a strong one. More and more of what was once thought to be somehow outside our physical world, that is, God's direct intervention in our world, has been explained.

As our mental image of the world has grown in sophistication we have built machines to see things that our senses cannot. By translating the data from our machines, we can "see" atoms and galaxies, we can see an egg hatch into a frog or we can see our own thoughts. We can see temperatures mapped as colors or brain activity mapped as points of light on a computer screen.

Our Minds

Study of the brain started with dissection and description. But there was no way to understand how the different physical structures functioned in the living brain. Later, studies of people who had injured parts of their brain shed some light on how things worked, or didn't work. Now we also have the ability to directly see neural activity and show it on a screen; the computer can see your thoughts, but not yet understand them. Combined with the older methods, plus biochemical and genetic research, quite a lot of progress has been made in the understanding of how we work. As these studies continue, the functions of our brains, our decision making, our emotions, and obsessions will become clearer. I'm not sure we will like all the results, and from what little I've read, they are certainly complicated.

I recently saw on TV a carefully controlled experiment, where it is possible to see your thoughts and make sense of them.

Imagine yourself (it was Alan Alda on the TV show) sitting in front of a screen with one of those scientific hair dryer things on your head monitoring your neuron firings and projecting them on a computer screen (in real time) behind you. The screen in front of you has a series of vertical bars colored red and horizontal bars that are colored blue.

Now you put on colored glasses, one lens is red and the other blue. The red lens makes the red lines disappear and so that eye only sees the blue lines and vice versa. But what do you see with both eyes open? Well, not surprisingly, your brain can't make sense of two completely conflicting images, so you see first the view from one eye, red vertical bars, then in 2 or 3 seconds you get the image from the other eye, blue horizontal bars. Back and forth the image shifts in your mind. So your conscious mind sees the input from only one eye at a time and it cycles back and forth. You press a switch when you see red and another one when you see blue.

Now look at the computer screen showing your brain activity. The visual cortices are lit on both sides, indicating that both eyes are working and the visual signals are coming in. But your frontal area, the part that is YOU, your consciousness, shows a cascade of neuron firings that flicker like twinkling Christmas lights from one side of your visual cortex (eye) to the other, just as you report (by way of the switch) which color you are seeing.

So there you have it, your consciousness on the computer monitor. (So if God talks to you will His voice show up on the screen as well?)

Our consciousness seems to be a series of sensory inputs or thoughts that come from different parts of our brain. If you monitor your own thoughts you can experience how one thought leads to another; memories, ideas, and physical sensations cascade into your consciousness.

It's not hard to understand how with too much stimulation we become unable to process these thoughts and can become confused and unable to function. It's also instructive to notice that there are many of these input areas, and that controlling them requires some substantial effort. And some are quite difficult control, like fear and anger, which may arise directly from some event and take control of our actions. According to modern brain scientists, Freud was right and a pioneer when he concluded that our brains do not function as an integrated whole, but rather as semi-autonomous parts. But he was wrong when he concluded that the number of parts was three. The number is larger than 3.

Given the way our minds work, it makes sense that religions have all included methods to control the mind, or at least provide a respite from the constant clamor of our different parts. Some use calming methods, like meditation or prayer. Perhaps surprisingly, others use sensory overload, like wild gospel singing and dancing, to shut off our incessant thoughts.

From the inside it is certainly not possible to perceive all of the internal workings of your mind. However, if you read something about how your mind works, you can better understand what is happening. Better understanding can lead to better control and better use of your faculties.

For example, just knowing that the parts of your brain that involve emotion work on a slower time scale than your cognitive parts, counting to 10 gives a little time for the emotional chemicals to settle down. But it takes about 20 minutes for these chemicals to dissipate completely; more if the upset was severe.

Also, memories that resulted from frightening experiences are coded differently than regular memories and therefore are tremendously persistent. The brain seems to be designed so that we don't forget about experiences where our life was threatened. Evolution has determined that these memories are more helpful in preserving our life, even though they can be very troubling.

Our Imaginary World is Even More Difficult to Understand

I could talk more about the physical aspects of our brains, but I want to talk about another strange world that we inhabit, our world of imaginary things, that is, non physical things. Our imaginary world includes symbols, concepts, beliefs, rights, institutions, success, money, causes. This world seems to take up more space in our minds than the Real world does. It directs our actions and shapes our understanding of ourselves and our relationships to others. It is extremely powerful and motivating, yet somehow slippery and subject to change without notice.

Because this world exists only in our minds, it isn't subject to physical laws, it isn't consistent. And while parts hold up well over the years, other parts vanish and still others appear. Most of our imaginary world comes from our culture. And because it forms the larger and more powerful part of our thoughts, it isn't surprising that we have a difficult time understanding others who come from cultures different from ours. We look back through time at other cultures and imagine we understand them, but of course, we don't. We have a hard enough time understanding the cultures that exist today, that we can visit and study first hand. Even our own culture baffles us, at least sometimes.

Take for example, our experience last year here in this room where we heard a man talk about Islam. Although his talk was well received, there was an awkward moment at the end of the service, maybe you remember, when we all hold hands. He didn't want to hold hands. He wasn't rude about it, but he was quite definite. I remember being offended and others were, too.

But later I thought about it. How could I, a person who considers tolerance to be among my most important values, be so easily offended. I shamed myself into realizing that being offended was a stupid and unproductive reaction. I thought, if I can't even be tolerant of someone who doesn't want to participate in one of my religious rituals, than I guess I'm not very tolerant after all. So I let go of the offended feelings. I hope you did too. After all, what do you suppose tolerance is? Isn't it largely a matter of not feeling offended when someone behaves differently than you? Particularly when they reject your highly cherished rituals?

So there you have an example of how our imaginary world, believing that our ritual of holding hands is universal and that everyone SHOULD do it, is really quite powerful.

Here is another example of how powerful our imaginary world is. Let's talk about money. What is money, really? Those pieces of green paper in your wallet? They are money, but most money is represented only by entries in a ledger, a virtual ledger in some computer, somewhere, that we trust. Money is really only a promise to produce either goods or services; it exists only because we believe in it, like a game or ritual. The representation of money in our wallets or bank accounts is only a device to help us remember the score. In fact, a lot of money isn't really money at all, it's pretend money. We call it credit.

You know how credit works. Suppose none of us had any money, but we wanted to do things that require money. So we just pretend that we have the money and then go out and spend it, trying to make more. Of course, we keep track, so later when we have all made real money on our business ventures, we pay back the pretend money.

That's exactly how the International Monetary Fund works when it lends money to underdeveloped countries. Then of course these countries spend the money or their leaders steal it, and then they can't pay it back and we wonder what went wrong. What went wrong is that we forgot that money, and particularly "making money" is defined by culture. Those people whose culture doesn't include the making money module, just are not able to play the money game. They don't know how and they may not want to. Still, they want the material things that we have and are angry that they don't have them. (In fairness to the IMF, they have learned from past mistakes and do a better job of working with governments to insure that they are successful not only in spending the money, but also in paying it back.)

Those who aren't able to keep track of this elaborate scheme, like us when we get older and lose track of things, or those who lack the capacity or education or inclination, we get taken advantage of, i.e., someone comes along and takes all our money, and even gets credit in our name so we owe even more. It's amazing how fast that happens!

Keeping track of our individual finances may be a challenge, but it is at least possible. Looking at the total of everyone's financial interactions is what we call the economy. The economy is complicated enough that nobody seems to be able to understand it or predict what it will do next, or, more to the point, make it get better. Just think of all the smart people who have tried.

Just a few examples: John F. Kennedy lowered tax rates in the '60s and successfully stimulated the economy. which actually increased total tax revenues. George W. Bush lowered tax rates and produced the largest deficit in history (two years in a row, broke his own record) and the economy is still struggling. His father, George H. W. Bush, raised taxes and lost his re-election bid largely as a result. Richard Nixon imposed wage and price freezes to reduce inflation and failed miserably. Bill Clinton didn't seem to do much of anything, but produced the largest budget surplus in history and an economic boom. These examples just go to show that although we may desire a different result from our economy, how to achieve that result is not at all obvious.

Now we are going into the final mind stretch.

The economy is an example of what scientists call a "complex" system. A church can also be considered a "complex" system, as can our society at large. At General Assembly there was a workshop on complex systems and how to work with them. The workshop was put on by some folks from, where else, Los Alamos. Although it felt a bit like a PhD program condensed into an hour presentation, and I certainly don't claim to understand much of the theory, I think I learned some things that I can pass along. In fact, some of the ideas sounded strangely familiar.

A complex system results when there are a number of independent agents who interact with each other according to a set of rules. You can think of this as the interdependent web that we sometimes talk about. Complex systems produce unexpected results. For example, consider the termite mounds that the Australian termites produce. You've seen them on TV. No termite has any idea about how to produce a mound or what a mound is. Yet they do it. How they do it can be viewed, and even simulated on your computer, as the result of each termite, acting as an independent agent, following a set of rules. The mound is just the pattern that results from their behavior. There is no way to predict that, except to simulate the system and watch what happens.

Complex systems cannot be controlled and their behavior cannot be predicted, except maybe in the short term. However, they do obey certain rules which can be understood, at least by some people. I've abstracted some of the rules given in the workshop as applied to churches:

Groups of people tend to self-organize. Better to let them do what makes sense at the moment than to adhere to a pre-conceived idea of organizational structure. An imposed ridged structure can destroy a system. (This probably explains why democracy works better than other government systems)

Better, more energetic interactions among individuals make for more vigorous systems, more diversity, more activity. Better interactions mean free flow of information, building activities on shared values, willingness to adapt to changing needs, i.e., abandoning old structures no longer used and creating new ones as needed.

You can't predict what the result will look like!

What I get from this is that the Comprehensive Planning Committee should look less at what we want our church organization to look like, or how big it should be, and more like what do we want to do together. It's more about what kinds of things we like to do together, what things reflect our shared values, what gets us excited. Positive interactions with each other will build energy and that will take us somewhere good (but I don't know where).

OK, now we've had our warm up, we've covered the mind and our relationship to the universe. Let's talk about God.

Well maybe not, we're out of time, lucky for you! But let me say just one more thing. With a physical universe as strange and wonderful as it is, do we really need God, too? Do we really have any idea what we are talking about when we say we believe in God, or we don't?

I hope this stretches your mind a bit. I hope that you have glimpsed some ideas that you can build on to enrich your own life and the life of the church.

May you and all creatures find the happines you seek.

Back to Top