Believing in Evolution

There is a substantial difference between knowing something and believing it. Belief is much more powerful as it goes beyond logic and connects with peoples sense of self.

This idea helps make  clear why there is a stigma about mental illness. The anxious person or the depressed person can know that they are ill, that it is possible to not be ill, often the problem is that they don’t believe that they can be well. I suffered from anxiety, there were brief times when I wasn’t anxious, instead of knowing I was well, I believed it was merely a temporary respite. It was when I believed that there was nothing wrong with me, when I believed what I already knew rationally, did I become well. so the mental illness stigma is perhaps because healthy people don’t recognise the difference between knowing something to be true and believing it. Perhaps for the healthy, they believe they are well before they have developed an explanation for why they are well, belief comes before knowledge in this instance.

As a scientist I both know and believe in the theory of evolution. I know, because I have studied, read and observed the evidence and accept evolution as a rational, empirically produced explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. I believe,  because I also accept the scientific process for discovering the laws of the physical universe, I accept the process as a valid way of generating truth.

Many scientists have difficulty understanding why those of religious faith lack a belief in evolution, indeed some of faith have difficulty believing in evolutionary theory. Religious faith is different to simple belief. Belief in God is different to beliefs about the physical universe, because belief perhaps comes before knowledge, rather than coming after knowledge. Religious belief connects to the self, before any empirical process of gathering knowledge. Faith concerns something beyond understanding of relationships in the physical observable universe. As a scientist I believe that it is possible for science to explain what God is, but that humanity may never establish a theory of everything. Sometimes, it is perhaps dangerous or less open to truth if belief comes before knowledge.

It is accepted that such theories as evolution or gravity are true. such truths can be established from raw data acquired from the physical universe. I believed these truths before I became a Christian and I know that there is no conflict between holding these beliefs in addition to religious beliefs, such as God having a role in the creation of the universe. The issue is perhaps that for some people the religious belief is more powerful to themselves than a mere rational piece of knowledge. To the atheist scientist, belief in scientific theory is more powerful than mere knowledge or understanding of religion, often atheists struggle looking beyond mere empirical understanding of the physical universe. To someone of faith, these powerful ideas can make the concept of evolution seem less important and hence less true. Yet people are not robots, they all harbour non-rational thoughts and ideas, the belief of humanists that there is perhaps, simply, that there is a physical explanation for these mental phenomena, but their belief may not be as strong as these less easy to break down logically ideas are not as fully explored, perhaps mentally acknowledged or as strongly believed. No individual person has a fully coherent explanation of themselves or the wider universe, yet every individual is on a journey to discovering truths.

I think I should point out, that I am in no way declaring any superiority for religious faith over atheism. What I am saying is that faith is worthwhile exploring. It is a question of balance, people choose what to invest our mental energies upon, there should be space for rational scientific inquiry as well as reflection on the question of faith.

Fear of Ideas

All people fear new ideas to some extent, a fear of change and the unfamiliar.  Such fears are natural, but often embracing new ideas or ways of thinking can be immensely positive. The familiar, the status quo, seems safe, so why even consider change? Well, sometimes the status quo is bad for people as individuals and wider society. sometimes it is easy to forget that everything is a journey, we can take small cautious steps, we can always turn and go back or in a different direction. Such a steady cautious approach is safe, rather than leaping crazily across to another place, a place that is strange and unknown. Accepting new ideas doesn’t change who you are but can make you a better person, just take small firm steps.

I have written much on this blog about my overcoming anxiety. Making such a change was scary, there was a fear of my personality changing, a change in my values, a change in how I think. I think this was why I rejected, like many other anxious people, the calls of people to just let go of yourself or to just not be anxious, this is taking that giant leap into the unknown. Better advice to the anxious is to take cautious steps, allow people to reflect that the direction they are going in is one they are happy with.

This process of change, of alleviating fear, occurs in many areas of life and realising this, has helped me understand why other people are cautious of other ideas. For example, my becoming a Christian.  When I was young, I lived in a traditional Christian community in rural Wales. My generation were highly sceptical of religion, we regarded it as a load of nonsense. We regarded religion as scary irrationality. Growing up there seemed to be this maniacal street preachers, evangelicals waving their arms around as if possessed by spirit, a seemingly very conservative culture that stifled innovative ideas. Then one day i was exposed to the joy and wonderful music of renaissance polyphony and the choral works of J.S. Bach, this music helped me understand some of the core ideas of Christianity, that they were good, open ideas, that the complexity and suffering of human existence, could be understood as a whole, that it was okay to accept this and that doing things to make the world a better place was a righteous thing to do.. This music led me onto a journey of discovery of the Christian faith and along the way I became a Christian. Becoming a Christian was not scary, it didn’t change how I am, or my other beliefs, it simply helped me become a better person. It has helped me appreciate that there are no easy answers, no single mantra to base your life on, that faith, like anything else is a journey.

Another issue, I am passionate about and  often write about is food. I became a vegetarian at the age of 15 because I became aware that many animals reared for the meat I ate were kept in inside with restricted space, this seemed cruel and wrong on animal welfare grounds. I now ethically source meat, I don’t believe it is wrong to rear animals for meat, but in rearing animals there is a contract that the animals should have a reasonable quality of life and be able to express natural behaviours. What I have come to realise is that there is a wonderful synergy that can be achieved with animals welfare, sustainably looking after agricultural land and the wider environment, sound economics, healthy food and a greater enjoyment in eating. Though it seems there is a fear of changing diet and shopping habits, even with such positive outcomes. Though i appreciate I arrived at this synergy by taking slow steps and consideration of each step. I used to fear that having high animal welfare standards may mean that it was not possible to feed all the humans on the planet by farming in such a way and may cause environmental damage. I was so pleased to realise that this isn’t the case, positive change benefits other areas. My message on food is that only eating meat as a treat and not everyday is healthier, cheaper, more sustainable and maintains animal welfare. Meat from animals that can range freely and are fed in a sustainable way, develops muscle, which makes the meat tastier and increases nutrients in the meat, making it healthier for the animals and the consumers. Rearing animals, working with nature, rather than against it, not only seems better, it is also better economically. So, I would encourage people to ethically source meat and save money by cutting out eating low quality meat in every meal, ultimately it’s cheaper and more enjoyable.

I think the idea of being open to new ideas and ways of being is so important, to better ourselves individually and wider society. However it is important to journey slowly and carefully, keeping our feet firmly on the ground as we do so.

This is why I was upset by the words of Donald Trump this week. Often politicians and other orators need to be regarded cautiously, they appeal to core conventional beliefs of a culture, then can take great leaps into the unknown, without questioning, without scrutiny. using Trump as an example, he states that there is a fear in Western societies of terrorism and in this most people will agree. However then Trump leaps onto blaming Muslims moving into the US as part of the problem, when there is no rational basis for this belief, it simply plays on fear and encourages fear, when fear is the actually the enemy. If Trump was a great expert on the history and politics of the Middle-East, then he may be worth listening to, however Trump himself has stated that he knows little of the history or politics of the Muslim world, thus he is not qualified to make meaningful comment. We are perhaps fortunate in Wales to have a significant Muslim population, there are a part of our communities, our workplaces, so it is clear that they are as decent people as any other sub group. The knowledge that the family down the street are ordinary decent people and are not secretly plotting the overthrow of civilisation, to think that they were would be extreme paranoia. However where there isn’t a normal family living in your locale it is much easier to play on the fears of the unknown.

The Tragedy of David Cameron

This week was the Conservative party conference and their leader, David Cameron’s speech. Initially I was disgusted and appalled, then today on re-reading his speech, I had this uncanny sympathy for David Cameron, I felt sorry for him, he just seemed such a tragic figure.

I should be old enough not to shocked by anything politicians say or do anymore. For Cameron to take the words of his opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, out of context and blatantly lie about his views and make accusations based on these lies, was simply disgraceful. Corbyn said that it was a tragedy that Osama bin Laden wasn’t brought to trial, Cameron spun this to say that Corbyn was a supporter of Osama bin Laden. I fully expect the media and the commentariat to misrepresent people and facts, that is the nature of modern politics, however, Cameron is someone who is a political leader of the UK, whose actions affect the reputation of the UK abroad. I am embarrassed for Britain by his ‘leadership’.

The remainder of Cameron’s speech that could have been made by any politician of the left or centre too. I understand that political parties can simply use rhetoric to appeal to the centre ground or swing voters, whilst voters should look to the politicians actions, the implemented policies, which usually tell a different story, this is why political speeches are interesting.

The thought occurred, that Cameron may actually believe his own rhetoric. He may really believe in holding the union of the United Kingdom together, to create a level playing field for people and businesses, for peace and prosperity in the world, for family, for community; these values are shared by proponents of the majority of political and religious creeds. The tragedy is that Cameron has failed to notice that the policies his government enact and those of the political right have been damaging the British economy over my lifetime.

It is concievable that that Cameron has not understood the incompatibility between his rhetoric and his policies. Cameron is a man whose life has been surrounded by people of his political persuasion and such groupings mutually enforce each others beliefs, tell each other that what they think is ok, that it is reasonable. So it is possible that Cameron really believes that Corbyn is a threat to the British society, without seeing that he himself is just as much of a threat. This explains how extremists become deluded by their groups ideas, rather than a wider picture. That such delusions occur in society, whether it’s members of a political ideology, a religious sect is the real tragedy to be guarded against. This is why i believe it’s important to keep exposing yourself to people who think differently to oneself, to avoid this tragedy.

To me, it is so ‘obvious’ that the ideas of the right are wrong. Simply examine the state of the UK housing crisis, is is good that an ever higher and higher proportions of peoples incomes be spent on housing, all this wealth ends up in the hands of the bankers and the very wealthy elite. The right wing consensus these days is that laissez-faire capitalism, the interests of big bunsiness/ corporations are the only aspect of the economy to be promoted and supported. I don’t understand how people can believe in this with a truly open mind. The entirety of the economy has value and should be supported if a healthy prosperous economy is achieved.All areas, including big business, small business, labour, education, science, health, transport, the arts, housing, all have parts to play in a healthy economy and no one sector can provide for all the others. If this plurality does not occur all the power and wealth ends up in the hands of an asset rich few, no-one invests in growing the economy or improving society, merely that one sector, in this case corporatism, continues to to raise the financial value of it’s assets to the detriment of the wider society.

As in any good tragedy, the protagonists suffers by damaging the very thing they love. The case of David Cameron seems to be a true tragedy.