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The Alliance for Positive Thought Blog

Saving Darwin

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Karl Giberson, in his recent book, “Saving Darwin,” argues that religion and evolution are compatible, contrary to popular belief. He was asked to comment on Carl Sagan's version of the wonder of the universe, a feeling of wonder which Einstein unfortunately referred to as “God.”

Shermer pushed on, asking Giberson to comment on the following definitional statement from Carl Sagan's "Cosmos:"

"For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins ... Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we sprung."

"What’s wrong with that?" Shermer asked Giberson, with a smile.

This kind of thinking is "hardly going to inspire ordinary people" to be passionate about spirituality, Giberson replied. "I just don’t think it would be a functional religion."


Of course, as Giberson himself notes in another interview, “Virtually all the leading spokespersons for science – the ones on bookstands and public television – are strongly antireligious.”

So his view is a minority view, but it is also the view that eventually will stand in the way of a secular religion. Eventually, we might presume, evolutionary theory will come to dominate the popular conception of the universe, as it now dominates the scientific community's conception of the universe. Heliocentrism eventually won out in the minds of the average person long after scientists could not refute it, and as long as evolution remains the scientific theory of choice, it will follow suit.

 

Burnin', Burnin', Burnin': The Free Market and Renewables

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Critics of extreme environmentalists have long made the argument that the free market will solve the “end of oil” problem, and the recent boom in solar and other alternative energy producing companies has lent credence to that claim. This summer, skyrocketing fuel prices gave a boost to alternative energy and made “greening” popular, but in the aftermath of the global economic slump, energy prices came back to normal. The New York Times has reported that the poor economic climate and falling oil prices may hinder the development of new green businesses .

And it may turn out that the “end of oil” will never come. Biofuels may give us the ability to continue burning things in order to get our energy. Some environmentalists champion biofuels, but burning ethanol or sunflower oil is less clean than burning gasoline, and so fails to address the problem of global warming.

 

Positivity and Negativity

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Several readers have commented that they think that positive thought can be oppressive or irritating. Surely it can’t be good for a depressed person to have relentlessly joyful person bounce into the room and tell him “Just cheer up!” Moreover, some of the most beautiful things that humans have created have been expressions of sadness and despair. And some people just like gloom.

To think of these phenomena as objections to the arguments presented here is a misunderstanding. The term “positive thought” is a shortcut; it is a way of referring to a set of practices developed and perfected by religions and other institutions over time. It does not mean optimism or ecstasy or joviality. Prayer, meditation, music and cognitive behavioral therapy are “positive thought.” The label is meant to refer to what all of these arts have in common – namely, the ability to influence behavior and emotion using the power of the mind in ways that are beneficial and healthy. All of these share in common the following characteristics:

A. They are associated with a method
B. The method requires discipline
C. The practitioner enjoys benefits as a result of practice
D. These benefits are the result of changes in neurochemistry caused by thought patterns

There are limits to positive thought. The brain only has power over things that occur in the brain, like thoughts and emotion. The brain cannot prevent outside events from occurring. Fortunately, most of what we all perceive comes through the filter of our brains. So despite our inability to affect the world, we can affect our mood and the way we respond to the world.

In order to achieve the goals of positive thought, its methods must be applied lightly. In music therapy, the music should match the subject's emotional state and then gently bring him up into a different state of mind.

Sturm und drang as an aesthetic value is not ruled out by this kind of positive thought. Those who like the Mozart Requiem and My Bloody Valentine can still be practitioners of positive thinking. In fact, much of religious music and art is gloomy, and religion (which defines positive thought) promotes that aesthetic along with its ideology.

 

Bacteria Can't Think -- Or Can They?

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Those of us least inclined to anthrocentrism might even grant that other mammals with big brains possess self-awareness too. But bacteria don’t have brains, and neither do vegetables, so those forms of life, most of us believe, don’t percieve themselves and the world the way we do. They are basically glorified chemical reactions, that don’t have a sense of“self.” We don’t think twice about a salad’s feelings, but can’t bear the thought of hurting a human baby.

This division in how we think of lifeforms is very useful to humans -- it’s not at all helpful to feel sorry for lettuce, because we need to eat. Sympathizing with a vegetable does no good because the machinery in our brain that is designed to create feelings of sympathy is there to help us get along with pets and people, not peppers.

But the division between thinking and non-thinking organisms is somewhat arbitrary. Where is line that divides the aware from the vegetative? Those who accept evolutionary theory understand that all of life is part of a grand continuum. As Daniel Dennett said, there is no reason to believe that humans are the only lifeforms with “magic stuff” in their brains. We evolved from the lower apes, and the evolutionary chain stretches back to one-celled organisms.

Scientists have discovered that bacteria can think ahead.

Bacteria may be humble single-celled creatures, but they're sophisticated enough to anticipate regular events, such as the arrival of day, thanks to their internal circadian clocks. A new study shows that they can also anticipate and prepare for sporadic events, as long as the events are reliably preceded by a signal

Maybe what they do is not “thinking” as we experience it, but it accomplishes the same ends. Our brains process information and make decisions based on anticipation. Bacteria don’t have brains, but they make decisions based on anticipation.

 

The Financial Crisis, Positive Thought, and Progress

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The financial crisis in the USA and worldwide makes us wonder how long our incredibly fast rate of scientific progress can last. As global warming accelerates even as the economy slows, our dreams of leaving Earth and spreading life and culture throughout the universe seem ever more distant.. The news of recent days makes us realize that we have not reached a level of prosperity from which we can make impartial judgments about the future, because we are still struggling to manage the present.

How can we possibly hope to wake up as a species and collectively act to preserve future generations when we are stuggling just to make ends meet, to keep from choking ourselves on our own emissions, to keep our house of cards from collapsing?

There is no doubt that immediate action is needed to solve these problems, and the precarious state of the global financial system makes taking any action much more difficult. But we cannot sacrifice our distant future for our immediate future.

In plentiful times we have the luxury of considering our higher purpose, and in time of stress and doubt we are too busy. But considering humanity’s long term goals and place in the universe can help to comfort us, which assists in making difficult decisions free of the influence of panic.

A religious person will tell you that honoring God is important whether you are rich or poor, and they say so because it is true that religious practice is helpful no matter your status. Likewise, the practice of positive thought, and earnest introspection about what truly matters, are important even as we fall into hard times.