First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany

ďThe Science of HumanityĒ

Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore, January 23, 2005


Call to Celebration


These are disturbing times for those of us who value science as one of the guides to understanding and practicing religion.The resurgence of evangelical Christianity that rejects the results of science and a retrenchment in the Islamic tradition against Western thought suggest a growing unwillingness to embrace an empirical dimension to the pursuit of truth.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we believe that truth comes to us from many sources including the discoveries of science and reason.Whether revealed or discovered, we believe that truth is independent of the discoverer, be it Jesus, Darwin or Einstein.

Emerson captures the end this pursuit of truth seeks in these words:

"That great nature in which we rest-----that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other---We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles.Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal one."



Spoken and Silent Meditation


In this time of wise silence,
Let us rest in the greatness of our nature

Reconnecting with the soul of the whole.

Let us escape for a moment, the succession in division

Lifeís continuing fragmentation into parts and particles.

Let us seek now within us

The universal beauty to which every part and particle

is equally related.

The eternal ONE, the Spirit of Life that animates our being,

Is not distant, or far off,

But close, familiar, and intimate with our heartís sincere longing.

In silence, Let us remember the depths of our humanity.


Sermon


Scientific advances are changing our perception of what it is to be human.Every field of knowledge is touched by scientific progress yet some fields, particularly the humanities, resist its influence.Without taking sides in this lovers quarrel, Iíll present some of the discoveries of leading edge scientific researchers.These are discoveries that should be shaping our thinking outside the sciencesóeven in the holy citadel of religion.Iíll do this by examining scientific discoveries that have social implications, then look at discoveries that extend our self understanding and finally investigate the futuristic speculations suggested by the evolving relationship of man and machine.

I could talk for a long time about each of these three areas.This is why Iíll be expanding this topic into a three-week class that begins tomorrow night which you are invited to attend.The source book Iíve used for my remarks and the class is a collection of essays by leading scientists working at the edge of their fields called The New Humanists.Weíll be having four RPI professors, Jon Newell, Ken Vastola and his colleague George Nagy, and Heidi Newberg, assist us as we wade through this research and discuss the implications of their findings for our understanding of human nature.

Have you ever wondered why Eurasian peoples have dominated the world while, say the Chinese, the Africans or the Persians have not? (or at least not yet given the Chinese economic ascendancy)White racists have an answer to that question Ė some kind of racial superiority.Yet DNA analysis has shown all races are far more alike than we are different.What else could explain the differences?

Some of you have read Jared Diamondís answer: guns, germs and steel.Basically, the Eurasians had some advantages that allowed them to evolve technologically faster than peoples living in other geographic areas.It all seems to begin with the domestication of plants and animals.Not all animals can be domesticated.Eurasia had the good fortune of the widest selection, partly because of the size of its landmass.Eurasia also had an advantage of indigenous large-grained seeds suitable for cultivation.This domestic cultivation of grain and herding animals allowed for greater population densities, greater exchange of ideas, and stimulation of weaponry technology.Population pressures of this growth caused the need for more land, thus led to war.One advantage the Eurasians had was biological warfare.Eurasians' larger exposure to animal-borne pathogens helped them develop both infections and immunities that other peoples did not.Ultimately the only thing that set the Eurasians apart was accidents of geography.

Since Darwinís discovery of natural selection as the engine of evolution, scientists have been transferring this methodology into other fields of research.This has not always been a welcome line of investigation as it suggests human behavior has more determinism than weíd like to admit.Trying to investigate genetically influenced sexual characteristics and behavior is like poking a stick in a hornetís nest.

In the fight for womenís equality, feminists have emphasized the spectrum of characteristics both men and women possess.Some women are aggressive and some men are more nurturing.Some men are short and weak and some women are tall and strong.Yet this homogenization misses the reality that most men are more aggressive, tall and strong than most women.In addition, scientists are confirming the existence of gender behaviors grounded more in biology than conditioning.

Here is an interesting example.When men win a competition or a game, their testosterone levels increase.When men lose, their testosterone levels decrease.Not only does this happen in a real competition, it also happens in a virtual one.Watching oneís favorite team win or lose on television has exactly the same effect on testosterone.Womenís responses to winning and losing usually donít have this hormonal component.

This may be a factor explaining why men and women often respond so differently to losing a job.Men typically derive more of their identity and self-worth from their work.This makes them more likely to be anti-social when they become unemployed.A comedian had an amusing way of looking at it. ďI donít believe in the criminal gene,Ē he said, ďbut if there was one, I think theyíd find it right next to the out-of-work one.Ē

Scientific investigation of human emotion, long the domain of the humanities, is helping us better understand ourselves.If natural selection was involved in the evolution of emotions, what were the advantages of crying, turning beet red with anger, and blushing? We are the only animal that sheds tears as an emotional response.Other animals have tear ducts but their use is not linked to emotion.Crying is a debilitating response because it clouds the vision and contracts awareness that might be used to fight or run away.Why would evolution have selected this behavior?

One new theory is that these costly emotions are hard to fake and thus communicate our inner state accurately.Crying is of course useful for infants as a way of getting parental attention.As adults, sensing what another person feels affects how we relate to them.Thus I might not kill you if I see your tears or Iíll run away if I see your face getting red.Seeing emotions in another personís face has a positive effect on developing trust which is a critical component in social relations.Our genes may have first discovered the wisdom of talking about and expressing our feelings.

One area of scientific research that has always grabbed my attention is trying to understand how the mind works.Scientists know a honeybee will do a dance to communicate where nectar can be found. They can create a robotic honey bee that willdo the very same dance and get bees to go to the same exact location.What they havenít yet figured out is how the bee stores the information in its brain and recalls it.

For human beings, how do we organize and remember what we know?Looking at the structure of our brain, researchers know that memory is relational.The easiest things to remember are the closest to sense impressions.A picture of a bi-colored tulip bed in Washington Park in May is easier to recall than the sentence.Sense impressions charged with emotion are easier to recall.This is why memory for peopleís names is improved by adding a picture and an emotion.Just try to forget the name of someone youíve met recently who you find sexually arousing.

Much of our memory is stored as sensation imprints.So when I recall a chair, an equation, or a hummingbird to memory, Iím likely to recall it as a picture not a word.Other senses are linked to the memory so remembering a rose also may recall the smell.Similarly, remembering a dog, the sound of its bark or a wagging tail and alert ears.This remembering process is also a generative one as I donít remember things exactly and my mind constructs missing pieces.This is why peopleís memory of traffic accidents are so notoriously suspect.Stephen Kosslyn calls this process of generating images, inspecting them, transforming them and inspecting them again, the Reality Simulation Principle.This iterative process is how we create our inner imaginary world.This is why imaginary rehearsals actually help us perform better.This simulation can also help us recreate our inner life.Since our imagination is interconnected with our emotions, reality simulations using a narrative can reveal our conditioning and allow us to bring them into consciousness.This is one of the reasons therapy works.

Kosslyn has a great thought experiment of how this works which we can try:

Imagine itís dusk, youíre walking alone, and youíre late.You start to walk faster and then notice a shortcut through an alley.Itís getting darker but you really donít want to be late, so you start toward it.Then you notice three guys lingering near the mouth of the alley, smoking cigarettes.Now think about a first scenario: The three guys appear to be in their early twenties; theyíre wearing long droopy shorts, dirty T-shirts, and baseball caps on backwards.As you get close, they stop talking and all three heads swivel and start tracking you.How do you feel?

Now try the same thing, except make them three balding, middle-aged, overweight accountants wearing suits Ö What if the guys are black or Latino?How do you feel now?

While this kind of research provides a better understanding of human psychology another result is figuring out how to replicate the human mental process in a machine.Right now scientists around the globe are reverse engineering our brains and our DNA trying to understand how they are put together and function.Expect significant progress in the coming years.

One approach to understanding brains is to figure out how very simple ones work.Since neuron networks have evolved by natural selectionís process of trial and error, perhaps if we understand how these simple systems work, we can scale them up.

Flatworms have very simple brains with about 2000 neuronsĖsomething researchers could probably replicate in a computer fairly easily.Rodney Brooks noticed when he cut out the brain of a flatworm (something that isnít likely to get people for the ethical treatment of animals too exercised) it continues to live but canít do any of its usual behaviors.Transplant a brain from another flatworm and after a few days it will be back to normal.Now if he put that transplanted brain in backwards, it will be confused and move backward at first, but after a few days, it will reorient itself and be back to normal.ďThe brain adapts and regrows.ĒThis very small neural network is able to self-organize.People can do the same thing with glasses that flip the experimental subjectís vision upside down.At first they are disoriented but fairly quickly adapt and their vision will return to normal.

Researchers want to understand how these neurons and neural networks work because once they have unraveled the genetic code for creating them, they are likely to start building computers in three dimensions out of organic materials.Engineers are approaching the limit of how small they can make silicon circuits in two dimensions.The only way to go next is up.The ones engineers create will be smaller and faster than the neurons in our brains.Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil thinks in the next twenty to thirty years, weíll have billions of little nanobots running round inside our bodies enhancing our capacity to think.Machines have one learning advantage we donít have, machines can download large amounts of data quickly and use it immediately.Our brains are frustratingly slow in this department.What if the two could be married inside our brains?Want to learn a language?Have your nanobots download it in your sleep and wake up fluent the next morning.Need new skills for your job?Follow the same procedure.(Educators should beware of this trend Ė you may become obsolete) This is where he believes humanity is headed.

What stands squarely in the way right now is the appalling state of computer software.Other scientific fields have advanced with lightning speed and weíre still stuck with Windows and Unix.We canít seem to create reliable software of greater complexity than 10 million lines.The error rate just canít be controlled.Many software algorithms perform worse at a drastically faster rate with the increasing size of the job they are requested to do.The deficiencies in software may prevent the huge leaps forward Kurzweil expects.Robots taking over?Hah!Just watch them beg for a software upgrade or plead for us to reboot them after a Windows crash.

Whatever the future may hold, advances in science will continue to change how we view ourselves.The application of these ideas will present us with new ethical and moral questions.Who was worried about cloning or stem cell research even 20 years ago?Will we be extending rights to conscious machines?Who will benefit from these technological advances?Will it be only the super rich who get nanobot enhanced brains or will the peasants in Latin America get a crack at sending and receiving email in their minds?

One thing I have great confidence in is change itself.Like it or not, science and technology will advance at an ever increasing pace which will guarantee full employment for programmers for the foreseeable future.If we canít stop it, perhaps we can direct it in life affirming and enhancing ways.To do this we need to keep up with these new discoveries and encourage their use in appropriate technology that will not put life on this planet at risk.

Socrates believed that knowledge was the key to a good life.We know vastly more than he did and Iím not sure weíre any better off.Even if we could have direct access to the Internet from our brain, Iím not sure it would make us any happier.Self-knowledge, however, can make us happier when directed toward developing character and virtue, the greatest good in Greek philosophy.The discoveries of science can contribute to that self-knowledge and guide us to our true humanity.



Benediction


There will always be mysteries science cannot solve.
Godís existence or non-existence cannot be proven.

Neither Research nor revelation 

can conclusively reach beyond the doors of birth and death.

Faith and belief cannot be eliminated from our vocabulary

Any more than reason and fact can explain the power of love.

But when science and religion hold hands,

Great good can come to our humanity

Through knowledge and moral purpose.

Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.All rights reserved.