My name is Burl Grey
I’d like to start by giving you “a thumb-nail”,
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
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…
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
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
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
I was one of those skeptics in a foxhole the
preachers cannot believe.
was discharged from the US Army in October of 1945.
I have one BIG question for us all:
“What does it mean to be Human?”
BIG answer that I give is:
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?”
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
story – connects me with my country’s history – as an American.
stories, like the ones I just gave, are all linked to endless family stories.
of course, all family stories are multiply linked to everybody else’s –
again – in endless variety.
of course, is the raw material of all Cultures.
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
question I ask – is What is the role of these epic
stories, Legends and Mythologies?
answer is: “Regulation” – “These stories represent organizing
ideas for regulating behavior from the individual and family to the
tribe or Nation State.
have three quotes from the book: “Magic, Science and Religion” by Bronislaw
page 101, He writes:
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.”
on P. 100 he writes:
as it exists in a savage community.. is a living reality.
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.”
on page 147 he summarizes:
beginning of man is the beginning of articulate thought and thought put into
words.. man would not have
been able to embark on his great Odyssey of cultural adventure and
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.” ?
want to read a couple of sentences from page 226 of that essay:
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.
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..
incredible power of symbolic language – to say almost anything – means –
that telling truth from lie is an uncertain enterprise.
story-teller can be totally free of bias, even if unintended.
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.
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.
alone plan for what will happen after we die.
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.
are the Symbolic Species. We live in
[The Symbolic Species, The co-evolution of Language
and the Brain. Terrance Deacon 1997, Norton: Pub.]
recapitulate my theme and look ahead.
live in two kinds of interacting stories;
our personal – and our cultural or mythological
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.”
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
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
None of the mythologies or Gods of old – had this kind of
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.
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.
only had one success to my knowledge and he, Paul Hewitt, is a skeptic today
and still my friend.
the last 20 years or so – I have been forced to modify my beliefs.
spectacular success of science and technology has utterly failed in the area of
interpersonal and ecological relationships.
explosive growth of technology is almost totally one sided.
technology enables incredible concentrations of energy to focus into narrow
areas like pumping oil by the billions of tons.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
earlier work “Descartes’ Error, published in 1994” describes how the
‘disembodied mind’ has led us down the dangerous road we now travel.
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.