I'm updating this for readability now in June of 2014 and am leaving the odd spacing between parts of the test because updating all of it takes more time than I want to spend now! (The old way was very time consuming when I put this here over a decade ago.)
My name is Burl Grey
I’d like to start by giving you “a thumb-nail”, history:

My personal Story … as a Skeptic.

I was born in Miami Florida in April of 1924, and spent most of my life there.

 

By the year 1938, I was 14 years old,

I had saved six dollars from my paper route and bought a whole box of ‘little blue books’ published by E. Haldeman and Julius of Girard Kansas.

 

Those books..  really only essays..  were about religion, science, sex and morality.

Many were written by English scientists like Bertrand Russell, Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans.

                  Now, The book that was most important and consequential for me,

                 was the famous essay by Bertrand Russell.. 

                  “Why I’m not a Christian”.

 

It was just about that time, that I proclaimed myself to be a skeptic…

And.. alas.. that was.. the beginning of the end.. of my nuclear family life.

When my Quaker stepmother, discovered my reading material, especially Russell’s essay,

she burned my books and sent me away to live with my cousins in Jacksonville Florida.

 

After all, by this time in 1938, her own, biological, twin boys were seven years old and had to be
protected from my dangerous questions and outlook.

All this excitement, of course, intensified my interest and made me realize I was onto something REALLY big and important.

 

Returning to Miami in 1940 I quit school on my 16th birthday and went to work.

By 1943 I was 19 and drafted by the US Army, from my job as a hamburger flipper at the Royal Castle in downtown Miami.

After extended Army training I was shipped off to England and later landed on the beachhead in France about
30 days after D day.

I was in combat for about eight months from July 1944 to May of 1945 except for two months in a hospital in England.

 

I attribute my survival to 90% luck, and 10% because of my strategy as a skeptic.

While the other soldiers were praying I was digging a deeper foxhole or calculating which direction to run.

One time on combat patrol - I went charging out in front of the line because I believed it was safer than staying with the other soldiers.

I was one of those skeptics in a foxhole the preachers cannot believe.

I was discharged from the US Army in October of 1945.

 

 

 

 

                            2

 

Tonight, I have one BIG question for us all: 
                                        “What does it mean to be Human?”

 

The BIG answer that I give is:  
                                        To be human, is – to live – in stories.”

  That is to say; “Who we are – is found in the stories we hear and talk about.”

    A basic question may be: “What stories are available for us to embrace?”

 

My father gave me a newspaper article – about his uncle – who was blinded in one eye during the civil war. He didn’t know it - but a -one inch iron ball- was buried in his sinuses. For the next thirty years he wondered why he had so many headaches – finally – the iron ball emerged from the roof of his mouth.  The Chicago newspaper called it a medical miracle.

That story – connects me with my country’s history – as an American.

 

Personal stories, like the ones I just gave, are all linked to endless family stories.

And, of course, all family stories are multiply linked to everybody else’s –

again – in endless variety.

 

This, of course, is the raw material of all Cultures.

 

So far as I know – every Culture has some epic story or mythology about their origins.    Some of today’s mythical stories are:

Genesis for the believers – the Market Economy for the Capitalist and perhaps the Scientific Method for the Technocrat.

The question I ask – is What is the role of these epic stories, Legends and Mythologies?

 

The answer is: “Regulation” – “These stories represent organizing ideas for regulating behavior from the individual and family to the tribe or Nation State.

 

I have three quotes from the book: “Magic, Science and Religion” by Bronislaw Malinowski:

On page 101, He writes:

“Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man.”

 

 

 

 

 

                                 3

And on P. 100 he writes:

“Myth as it exists in a savage community.. is a living reality.

This myth is to the savage what, to a fully believing Christian, is the Biblical story of creation, of the Fall, of the Redemption by Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross.” 

And on page 147 he summarizes:

“The beginning of man is the beginning of articulate thought and thought put into action..

Without words.. man would not have been able to embark on his great Odyssey of cultural adventure and achievement.”

 

Could I have a show of hands of those here tonight – who have read the essay I posted on my website called “Sanctity, Lies and Evolution.” ?

 

I want to read a couple of sentences from page 226 of that essay:

 

“The advantages of symbolic communication are so enormous --  that some anthropologists have claimed that its emergence in evolution -- can be compared in importance - and novelty - only to the appearance of life.

Symbolic signals can be transmitted in the absence of their referents, and therefore - discourse can escape from the here and now ---  into the past,  -- into the future, -- the distant, and the hypothetical.. .. ..”

 

This incredible power of symbolic language – to say almost anything – means – that telling truth from lie is an uncertain enterprise.

No story-teller can be totally free of bias, even if unintended.

As Malinowski tells us – the Myth tends to be our safeguard. If a dead ancestor or a God is watching as we tell our story – that’s a reason to have more confidence in it’s truthfulness.

 

We inhabit a world full of abstractions, impossibilities, and paradoxes. We alone, as human beings, brood about what didn’t happen, and spend part of each day musing about: what if – this – or what if – that - had happened.

We alone plan for what will happen after we die.

This internal or virtual world – these stories – are what we all share as human beings – with all their wonder and beauty as well as the nightmares.

 

We are the Symbolic Species.  We live in stories.

[The Symbolic Species, The co-evolution of Language and the Brain. Terrance Deacon 1997, Norton: Pub.]

 

 

 

 

                       4    

                                                 NOW..

                        To recapitulate my theme and look ahead.

 

We live in two kinds of interacting stories;

our personal – and our cultural or mythological stories.

For hundreds of thousands of years, Religious myths served to regulate the relationships between people as well as – between tribal groups and their environments. As Malinowski says: “Myths contain practical rules for the guidance of man.”

 

In Roy Rappaport’s classic book “Pigs for the Ancestors” he showed how the spirits of the dead were consulted in various rituals. Their belief system was ecologically relevant – it was directly involved in regulating their vital concerns like protein intake – marriage rites and warfare.

 

As early civilization arose because of agriculture – and large armies could be organized – the old mythical stories started to lose their regulatory function – becoming less relevant and increasingly malevolent as armies with differing stories – clashed on the darkling plains.

 

In modern times the Nation States and their stories have been replacing religious authority as the primary organizing entities.

Approximately coinciding with the rise of science and technology – the Nation States have brought us two world wars and 50 years of terror – threatening the world with biological and chemical warfare – and nuclear annihilation.

None of the mythologies or Gods of old – had this kind of power.

 

In our times – a new, more powerful and ubiquitous belief system is spreading over the Globe.  

For the last three or four hundred years the story of science has relentlessly advanced and conquered our imagination with everything from television and space exploration to computers and the cloning of human beings.

 

For the first fifty years of my life I had claimed the story of Science as my religion. I wasted a lot of time bashing Christians. Living in Miami Florida, I would invite the Jehovah witnesses into my living room and soundly defeat them, in my scientific terms. Of course that was a complete waste for all of us.

I only had one success to my knowledge and he, Paul Hewitt, is a skeptic today and still my friend.

 

 

 

                          5

For the last 20 years or so – I have been forced to modify my beliefs.

The spectacular success of science and technology has utterly failed in the area of interpersonal and ecological relationships.

The explosive growth of technology is almost totally one sided.

High technology enables incredible concentrations of energy to focus into narrow areas like pumping oil by the billions of tons.

This kind of technology is growing exponentially and fits the Myth of the Market story perfectly. High technology driven by titanic market forces has no conscience – no adequate way for regulating dangerous materials in tectonic quantities. This is our new and more deadly “tragedy of the commons” where the interests of machines and business usurp the subtle and complex biological world.

The decisions that corporate executives make must serve the company or they soon lose their jobs. The corporations are legally immortal. The driving incentive, the lifeblood of the corporation, is primarily money which has the property of annihilating distinctions; everything can be measured in terms of numbers.  This is anti-biological in the extreme, as living creatures need limited amounts of hundreds of chemicals and too little or too much is lethal.

 

There is a new story unfolding about being human which, I believe, shows the promise of bringing balance into the competition between living things and technological machines.

Second generation cognitive science is showing the way to compose a more relevant and human story of life.

One of the most basic tenets of science is that the observer must not contaminate the object of study with her emotional bias.

Antonio Damasio has now shown that “… emotion is integral to the process of reasoning and decision making, for worse and for better.” Page 41 “The Feeling of What Happens, body and emotion in the making of consciousness.”

His earlier work “Descartes’ Error, published in 1994” describes how the ‘disembodied mind’ has led us down the dangerous road we now travel.  

 

The only hope I see is in second generation Cognitive Science and Cybernetics – where our human bodies are the new sacred vessels of the embodied mind.

George Lakoff of Berkeley has written a new book called:

“Philosophy in the Flesh, The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought.” 1999 Basic Books.

I believe this new story of “What it means to be human” is the only route available for a human centered civilization.