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.

Anxiety and Understanding

Generally, there is much misunderstanding of mental illness in the world. Mental illness doesn’t receive the same support and sympathy as other ailments. I suffered from severe anxiety for most of my life, as did my mother and my maternal grandmother. for which, we as a family received little support or understanding. It is partly that I grew up surrounded by anxiety, that it seemed normal, that anxiety seemed to be a part of me. It was wonderful to discover that anxiety wasn’t a part of me, that it was simply an illness and it wasn’t something I had genetically inherited.

I fortunately managed to to self diagnose and work through a solution to this chronic anxiety. I still get anxious from time to time, because anxiety is a natural part of existence. It is perhaps for this reason that people don’t understand anxiety or such conditions as depression, because there is a perception that people are simply wallowing in it or using it as an excuse. Most of the time people with such conditions aren’t behaving that way out of choice, they fervently wish that they were healthy.

One of the issues that I struggled with in overcoming anxiety, is that often people don’t understand what it is like to recover from such a condition, to become ‘normal’ [by normal I mean mentally healthy]. It’s like being re-born and you realise that there is this whole world of social interaction that you can now participate in fully. That the people who like you and you share positive experiences with are no longer confined to people who suffer from debilitating conditions themselves. you no longer find the need to seek out the vulnerable to find people to be open and honest with. The issue has been for me, one of being more open with ‘normal’ people. Being open with ‘normal’ people is great, it’s only a problem if you open up about your past anxiety, because ‘normal’ people don’t understand it.

It took me quite a while to appreciate the difficulty of discussing anxiety, an issue the other people have scant understanding of. It’s kind of a taboo subject, something people don’t want to think about. I can completely understand this taboo, as it’s like the fear of trying to understand the motivations of a terrorist or a serial killer, the fear that this mental condition could happen to you, the fear that you may contract anxiety and not have the skills and knowledge to get out of it easily.

It was especially problematic for me as I didn’t know anyone else who had overcome anxiety, to ‘compare notes’ and to realise that I wasn’t the only person in the world who this had happened to. I kind of needed some reassurance that not being anxious was really a good, healthy way of being, that I could just stay not being continually worried. Also the people who had encouraged me to be more confident and less paranoid, were people I couldn’t thank properly, as they didn’t understand, that what happened to em was more profound that simply building up confidence and experience of situations; even as an anxious person I still built up confidence with experience of situations.

The Belief Trap

Until recently I suffered from social anxiety. I struggled to fit in. Part of the reason for this was being an outsider, different to the mainstream. This social anxiety is a trap which self perpetuates until you really understand it and can put it behind you. The trap involved various belief structures.

A simple way of being sociable is to express what you think about any given situation and listen to others, balancing conversation between the serious and the fun. When what you think is different, many people won’t understand. This is fine, but when what an individual thinks is different most of the time, it influences behaviour, because of the way people react to the unusual. The outsider always feels part of a minority, constantly questions whether what they think is wrong and this saps confidence. Confidence is the very thing necessary to maintain being open and honest.

These negative reactions creates tension and unease. As social interactions become frequently fraught, the outsider is left feeling excluded from the group. The outsider hasn’t chosen to be excluded, they are just being honest. However the outsider may feel uncomfortable with their social position or dislike making people around them uneasy, conversations seem to cause problems . So, a strategy emerges of not being honest, to cover up the differences with humour and role play, to not be the awkward one. The difficulty then is for other people to distinguish when the person is being serious/truthful or being sarcastic/playful. I my personal experience of this, people often complained that they couldn’t tell when I was being serious or not. Really, this distancing and lack of clarity is a mask to hide behind from being feeling hurt or alone so frequently.

The outsider becomes aware and anxious socially, yet retains a desire to be open and honest with other people. The trouble with this honesty is that it is often not believed or seen as creepy disturbing behaviour. Not being believed causing one to act nervously, which compounds other peoples unease with the outsider. As this continues, the outsider may start to believe that they are actually creepy and disturbing and build up barriers between themselves and wider society. It was understanding why I was not being believed that enabled me to escape from this belief trap.

The belief trap operates such that as people begin to disbelieve the outsider, this affects their communications to the outsider. The outsider then begins to suspect that people are being dishonest with them and start not to believe what people are saying to them. This belief trap can quickly descend into a paranoid world where nothing one says is true, nothing one hears is true and the world quickly makes no sense at all.

The escape is simply not being concerned that people believe you, to ignore small group effects that separate one from the group, accept that in the wider society there are others with similar shared beliefs that validate the outsider individual. If people don’t understand then that is their problem, not the outsiders (providing that outsider is always open and willing to answer questions about their beliefs)  Why is the outsider not believed?

The outsiders understanding or motivation is not widely understood. Often an odd behaviour will be rationalised by others according to social archetypes. For example, the man seeking to talk to woman, may be construed as seeking a sexual relationship, it is the most likely motivation. However it is not the only explanation, so why are alternative explanations not explored?

Often outsider behaviour is viewed as creepy. Creepy being defined as manipulative behaviour with a hidden motivation. The idea is that the person is seeking something through not playing by the rules of the society, hence it is then easy to ostracise that person, to punish the anti-social behaviour. The trouble is that the outsider finds conforming to these unwritten social conventions challenging and unrewarding. Especially when traditions in society are being ripped up in favour of a tyranny of an unthinking majority.

There are those who have a good understanding of the social rules. Sometimes these people know how to be deceitful and manipulate people, whilst abiding by the rules. People are aware of deceitful behaviour and know that it often isn’t easy to spot. So, when an outsider appears to be obviously deceitful they can justify shunning the outsider as there behaviour has similarities with manipulative behaviour. If the example of the man seeking to talk to a woman is considered, then the honest and open activity of the outsider are misinterpreted and lumped together with the actions of the deceiving relationship seeking male.

There is a big risk for outsiders, who find a like minded community where they feel a sense of belonging. It sometimes happens that there is a terrible flaw in any particular way of being. Mis-truths generated within the community may be viewed as true and justify actions such as terrorism. So whilst a sense of belonging is great, it remains important to seek balance and perspective from wider society.

It is also important not to vilify any particular motivations, so individuals suppress there feelings. Listening and an active exploration of someone’s view will often reveal that the difference in opinion is not so great as at first envisaged.

The 50% Rule

Whilst attending a Q&A with Sir Steve Redgrave, the multiple Olympic gold medallist and thoroughly nice bloke, he discussed ‘the 50% rule’. He gave this discussion in response to the question of why put yourself through the sacrifice of training.

The answer is simple. He kept doing it because he enjoyed it at least 50% of the time and stated that he would give up rowing if he ever dipped below this level. Really any successful sportsperson or artist doesn’t undergo some huge personal sacrifice in order to achieve success, they do it because they enjoy the training 50% of the time. Of course he forced himself through many gruelling ERG session which he hated, nothing can be enjoyed everytime, but less than half of sessions were like this.

Really, the 50% rule can be applied to everything that we choose to get ourselves involved with as humans. It can also be applied to understand the difference between happy and unhappy people. Simply, unhappy people either persist in doing things they don’t enjoy, haven’t yet found something they really enjoy or are suffering some form of depression which prevents them enjoying life. Why 50%? why not 10% or 30%?

No-one is happy or sad most of the time, generally most people spend most of their lives in a state of neutrality, neither being happy or sad. People have moments of being happy or sad, also these states can linger for a while. A healthy person will allow feelings of happiness to persist and unhappy thought to be forgotten quickly.

So, if the peturbations away from neutrality are mainly happy, then the memory of happiness will pervade the neutral state and the person can generally be described as happy and content with themselves. Even if the majority of peturbations are sad ones, this can be outweighed by the lingering happiness increasing the influence of happy. Conversely the unhappy person will have their neutrality burdened by the memory of sadness.

I think that this is particularly hard on the depressed person, who has insufficient experience of happy to understand what it is. To the depressed person, the moments of happiness are so rare, they seem artificial and instead of enjoying them they agonise over how this came about and whether it would be possible to find this state again soon. Of course the agonising only serves to dispel the happiness, it is lingering in sadness, which only makes things worse.

For example I like to read about the news, I like to know what is going on in the world, however most of this news tends to be very sad and often this sadness effects me after I have stopped reading. Really by the logic of this, I should stop reading the news! so sometimes I do stop. Stopping allows me to be free of cynicism with the world, I’ll be aware it’s there but have actively chosen to be free of it, at least for a short while. so to be happy,one has to break your own rules, some of the time, to be happy.

I would say, being someone who only discovered happiness relatively recently is that understanding happiness is important as you only truly experience happiness when you know what it is and how you got there, an analogy is knowing where the state of happines is on a map. Humans naturally, know what happiness is, but long periods of depression serve to make people forget where happiness is. It also required lateral thinking. One cannot simply arrive at happiness in a linear logical way, it has to be felt rather than thought.