The Dissident

Lover of philosophy, politics, and spirituality

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A Defense of Self-Transcendence

The reason I feel compelled to write about self-transcendence is because it is an extremely nebulous word that gets tossed around without proper explanation. Second, self-transcendence is deserving of attention because it is fundamental to the human quest for experiencing the meaning in life. Lastly, I feel obligated to defend self-transcendence against the skeptics attempt to reduce it to just brain states. To the contrary, self-transcendence involves real experiences that can illuminate life, meaning, purpose and significance.    

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Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York, 1971, p. 269.)     – Abraham Maslow

Recently, I was at the bedside of a patient as he breathed his last breath. As a hospice chaplain, this is a rather common experience. However, this experience was different than most cases because it served as a transcendent experience that changed me.

It was just he and I in the room. His breathing had become labored with the typical ‘death rattle’ in his breathing caused by fluid in his upper chest and throat. He was only 57 years old and had absolutely no one in his life to support him during his last minutes on earth. I sat with one hand on his shoulder, in a cold and sterile room while the final chapter of his life comes to an end. In that eerie and lonely moment, I saw myself in his place. The image in my mind was me as a 57-year-old actively dying man, all alone, in a dimly lit shabby county care facility. The feeling was haunting and chilling. I was haunted by the conception of dying alone in a cold and emotionally desolate environment. It was then that a door in my mind opened up, and thoughts of my wonderful wife, beautiful newborn son, and loving family permeated every fiber of my being. In that moment, I experienced transcendence that was more than a feeling; it changed me.

The experience united me with the axiom that every relationship is precious. Now, to say “every relationship is precious” doesn’t sound very deep or profound. However, sometimes it’s simple truths that hit us like a mack truck. Often, it’s the simple realizations that flip our world upside down and expose the self-centered illusions that entrap us. My transcendent moment brought me out of the mundane and into the experience of being alive. It woke me from my routinized slumber and brought to light something greater than my self-interested mindset. My transcendent moment was a revolution of my soul.

Defining Self-Transcendence

Self-transcendence is an altered state of awareness by which we transcend the mundane and banal routinized modes of life and connect with a greater sense of meaning. Self-transcendence takes you from your myopic, isolated, and individual conception and connects you with a deeper, more meaningful way of existing. For example, we may experience self-transcendence through meditation, music, religious activities, professional sports, nature, drugs, and political beliefs. Self-transcendence occurs when one is deeply stirred by Mozart or the Beatles; when one is united with the whole as you stand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon or you celebrate your team’s victory; it’s felt in contrite prayer or LSD; and through feeling love at the deepest visceral level or while eating the best Chilean sea bass you ever had. Self-transcendence is crucial for our well-being for the obvious reason that we each yearn for meaning, purpose, and connection. The opposite of self-transcendence would be all the routinized banalities of life. While my morning routine of showering, brushing my teeth and getting dressed is an experience, it most definitely is not a transcendent one. However, my nightly twenty-minute meditation is a personal example of self-transcendence by which my sense of ‘self’ slowly dissipates and I unite with what feels like an uncontaminated sense of peace.

Why the Need to Transcend?

Self-transcendence is one of the fundamental pursuits of being human. In the deep recesses of the soul is the yearning to be part of something bigger than the idiosyncratic isolated self. On one hand, we live life as individuals fulfilling our individualized goals and desires. On the other hand, we live in a highly socialized world and we see the benefits cooperating with people for a greater good. As Darwin noted, human beings came out on top because we learned how to cooperate in groups. In essence, man found the good in transcending the individual and embracing the unity of the whole. The stronger the affinity for the group, the stronger the group will be and the more likely the group will persist. Like bees and ants, we group together and circle around ideals and truths we hold to be sacred. Religion and politics are two palpable examples that illustrate how people transcend the ordinary routines of daily life and transcend to ideals and virtues that make life worth living and fighting for.

We can go to an even deeper substrate as to why there is a need to transcend. One of the most basic and elemental reasons why self-transcendence is sought and valued is because life is suffering. We are unwillingly thrown into a world rife with pain and suffering while having to solve the most complicated question ever advanced: how can I live a life that is significant, meaningful, and purposeful? The need to transcend the mundane is a ubiquitous pursuit given our close proximity with isolation, alienation, boredom, death and trauma that befalls every person. You are the lead actor in your personal drama of life, and we all want to be the hero in the play that is life; the heroic journey involves transcending the monotonous chaos of life, while reaching up for the deeply meaningful.

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Self-Transcendence as a House With Many Rooms

Self-transcendence can lead to rather ambiguous and esoteric ideas, so allow me to present a helpful metaphor to make it a bit more lucid. Think of the mind like a house with many rooms, most of which we’re very familiar with, but sometimes it’s as if a doorway appears almost out of nowhere, and it opens onto a staircase, we climb the staircase and experience a state of altered consciousness or awakening. The transcendent experience is the ‘ah-ha’ moment which illuminates our way of being. Another way to put it is that it unites us with the sacred.

As a hospice chaplain, I am often surrounded by self-transcendent experiences. Death has a way of catapulting people out of their comfortable little box and into a world of the unknown. Sometimes death opens the door leading us to the stairway of self-transcendence. Once, a daughter of a dying patient of mine described the last minutes of her father’s life. She said that the room was engulfed in peace and all went quiet except the birds chirping outside. Then, she felt as if her ‘self’ simply melted away and all she felt was a unity and love with her father that she had never experienced before. The image that she felt was the warm embrace of her father, and the calm realization that his time on earth was up. He passed minutes later. She would later would tell me how that experience awakened her to a more mindful realization of how meaningful family truly is. For her, the staircase led not to only intense feelings, but it re-oriented her life in such a way that she became a better person for it.

I should clarify that self-transcendence experiences are not necessarily always profound life-changing epiphanies. Often, when the door at the top of the staircase opens, we are awakened to a truth or ideal that causes only minor tectonic shifts in our perspective. When I listen to pianist Michele McLaughlin’s song “Dismissed,” I often experience self-transcendence that enlivens me to a kind of pure joy. It doesn’t, however, leave me in a stupefied ecstatic state that completely rocks my world with awe. Nevertheless, it is still a self-transcendence experience that lifts me from my run-of-the-mill life.

Self-Transcendence Connects Us With the Sacred

Self-transcendence helps us identify what is sacred for us. When something or someone becomes sacred it means that the significance of the thing/person/experience is elevated to a status deserving of reverence, honor, and is hallowed. In religious talk, it’s holy. Our ability to identify things/people/experiences as sacred is paramount for us because the sacred is precisely what makes life worth living. The sacredness we imbue upon, for example, family, love, capitalism, faith, relationships, a hobby and being Republican or Democrat, enlivens us with a greater purpose and meaning in life. A deeper way to think of it is that the transcendent experience re-directs or re-orients us to the sacred. It acts as a reminder, exposing to us what ought to be pursued.

It was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim that spoke of man being homo duplex (man as two). The sacred is part of what makes man homo duplex, which is to say that we occupy (at any time) one of two domains: the sacred or profane. A fundamental aspect to being in the world is that we move up and down a vertical line between the sacred and profane. The sacred and profane is not to be confused with the value judgements: good (sacred) and bad (profane). The sacred and profane are simply two modes of being. The sacred refers to those collective representations that are set apart from society, or that which transcends the humdrum of everyday life. The profane, on the other hand, is everything else, all those mundane things like our jobs, our bills, and our rush hour commute. Self-transcendence is the act of ascending the vertical line, leaving the customary and common for the luminous and lustrous.

Connecting With the Collective Consciousness

Self-transcendence connects us with the collective consciousness. Collective consciousness is when you forget your own individual desires and decide to integrate into the whole. ‘The whole’ is representative of the collective ideas, beliefs, and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. Collective consciousness creates a solidarity of beliefs through mutual likeness. The totality of sentiments common to the average members of the society form a determinate system with a life of its own. Some examples of collective consciousness include the ideals that ‘love is better than hate’, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’, and ‘flourishing is [most often] better than pain’. Granted, not everyone embodies these beliefs, however, these axioms take us out of our individualistic world and propel us towards solidarity with the whole. History reveals the force of the collective consciousness with examples such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Berlin Wall coming down, and 9/11. We join with the collective consciousness when we transcend our boring and tedious lives, and our awareness is ruptured by mass devastation and trauma or random acts of kindness and when our team wins the Super Bowl.

A Rebuttal to Skeptics

Skeptics often roll their eyes at stories of transcendence because they are not real. By ‘not real’, I mean that self-transcendence does not point to something objectively real (i.e. empirically verifiable through scientific method). The claim is that self-transcendence is [just] a subjective experience, thus, not real. Moreover, the skeptic often claims that self-transcendence is just a feeling. Thus, self-transcendence is sterilized and diminished to the compressed notion ‘feeling high’.

The problem with the skeptic response to self-transcendence is twofold. First, it’s a reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity) to conclude self-transcendence is just a subjective feeling; as if to infer that the subjective has nothing to do with reality. Pain, hunger, and anger are subjective states, but they are nevertheless real to the experiencer. When the religious person has a near death experience, it is real to them. Just as when the secular person falls in love, that euphoria is real to them. The religious and secular person both experience self-transcendent moments and, most importantly, they embody these subjective realities which cause by real physiological states in their body. It is absurd to dismiss or reduce self-transcendence simply because it cannot be empirically verified through demonstration.

Second, the skeptic is falling into an error of category. What I mean by this is that the realness of subjective experience is in a completely different category than realness in the objective world. There simply is not only one category of reality that all knowledge can fit nicely into. In short, the realness of the computer I am typing on is different than the realness of my hunger. One relies on sensory perception and the latter relies on a physiological reaction. Both are real, yet both are known and/or experienced differently, because they occupy different categories of realness. We need not fall into error by conflating the two.

I do, however, feel the skeptic’s frustration when people use their self-transcendence experience to make objective or absolute truth claims. Again, two different categories (or domains) that need not be conjoined.

Final Words

This is my attempt to define self-transcendence. It will nevertheless always be a nebulous term with numerous interpretations. My goal is to paint a clearer picture so that people can awaken to the reality that life has innumerable opportunities for experiences that are deeply meaningful. We each get one shot at life; that’s it. After being at the deathbeds of hundreds of hospice patients, no one has ever said that they wished they had spent more time in the office or bought more stuff. Satisfaction, contentment and courage come from the ability to transcend the mundane and reach for those moments that remind us the preciousness of being.

 

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Subverting Rationality (Part 1)

Written over 2 days after my philosophy group called Symposium, met to discuss myth and objective rationalism. This is a short 700 essay that attempts to buttress my claim that the only thing(s) real are that which is most meaningful, as opposed to that which is objectively demonstrable through empiricism.

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One of the most important foundational questions to our existence is this: How should we best construe the world if we are to determine how to act properly within it? The world in which we live can either be construed as a forum for meaningful action, or a place of objective things. The former finds its place in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, and literature and mythology. In this construal, meaning is shaped by our social interactions which produces a guide to action. The latter manner is a world of things and finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. In this construal science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validated properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools.

These binary construal’s – one aimed at meaning and the other aimed at reality as it ‘is’ – ought to prompt us to ask another foundational question: How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon Pre-Enlightenment nonsense? I frame the question this way because modernity has a way of elevating today’s (post-experimental) objective rationalism over-and-above (pre-experimental) mythos of meaningful action. However, if a culture grows and survives, does it not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid? It myths are mere superstitious proto-theories, why did they work? Why were they remembered?

We have made the great mistake that the “world of spirit” described by those who preceded us was the modern “world of matter,” primitively conceptualized. That is not true – at least in the simple manner we generally believe. The cosmos described by mythology was not the same place known to the practitioners of modern science – but that does not mean it was not real. We have not yet found God above, nor the devil below, because we do not yet understand where “above” and “below” might be found.

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Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is qualitatively different phenomena. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique for shared affective valance, their value, their motivational significance.

Much of the clash between mythos and objective rationalism is that the modern notion reduces ‘true’ and ‘real’ to that which can only be demonstrated empirically while completely stripping the affect of every encounter we experience. But let’s take the ancient Sumerians as an example. The “world” of the ancient Sumerians was not objective reality as we presently construe it. The Sumerians were concerned, above all, with how to act (were concerned with the value of things). Their descriptions of reality (to which we attribute the qualities of proto-science) in fact comprised their summary of the world as phenomenon – as place to act. They did not “know” this – not explicitly – any more then we do. But it was still true.

The ancient Sumerians faced the same challenge as we do today: How do we live with purposeful meaning? This is the fundamental drive for human beings. We wake up in the morning and begin moving towards some-thing, meaning. Meaning means implication for behavioral output. Therefore, there are three excruciatingly important questions that guide our being, and they are: (1) What is? (2) What should be? and (3) How should we therefore act?

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Objective rationalism is silent and utterly impotent to these questions. Not even analyzing brain states can tell us why any meaningful experiences even matter. To the contrary, we are all moved by a goal that resides in an imaginary state – in fantasy – as something (potentially) preferable to the present. We then tweak how we act within the world so as to one day obtain the idealized future we have in our head. What I am describing is a forum for action; it’s what every myth is based upon. No, it’s not ‘true’ or ‘real’ in the modern sense, but the affect on us is absolutely true, and real.

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Using Pragmatism to Reconcile Religion and Science

This was written over several days and finished up in a coffee shop with a blonde roast at my side, and Antonio Vivaldi classical sets in my ear. In this essay, I take ideas from William James, John Dewey, Paul Tillich, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida and Marin Heidegger and synthesize them into a short treatise on the reconcilability of science and religion. Drawing from pragmatism, I hope to dissolve some of the talk of [T]ruth and focus on show how science and religion are tools that accomplish a particular purpose with the goal of meeting particular human needs. My contention is that you can be science-minded and religious while retaining a clear semblance of intellectual responsibility.

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Science and religion are often said to be irreconcilable. The principle argument for this claim is that it’s intellectually irresponsible to both believe in the existence of a benevolent omnipotent creator of the universe and to accept the results of modern science. I’m dubious of this notion of intellectual responsibility.

Let us consider an illustration that may put my argument into perspective. Imagine an evolutionary biologist who is also a religious believer. Let’s call this imaginary person, Professor Mastersen. Mastersen spends her time trying to find ways to bridge the gap between Darwin’s story of how the mammals and, in particular, human beings came into existence. Her work is done within and against the background of the usual story of the history of the physical universe; the first story told by Lucretius, and enlarged upon by Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. It’s a story about elementary particles batting about without purpose and coming together accidently to form stars, planets, protein molecules, and eventually everything else. God, however, does not get into the act.

On Sunday’s, Professor Mastersen goes off to Mass, recites the creed, takes communion and all the rest of it. She doesn’t think much about the relationship between her weekday and Sunday activities. She was raised a Catholic and she relishes the experience of communal worship. Ever since she realized her oldest son is gay, she’s had doubts about the church’s views on various issues, and she regards the present Pope as a little too preoccupied with sex. But she figures Popes come and go, and the next one might be better. Although she is married to an agnostic, her husband agreed that the children would be raised Catholic. When her kids were studying the Catechism, they would ask her the usual questions of just how God managed to create the world out of nothing, how God managed to be both fully God and fully man, and how the consecrated host on the alter manages to be the divine substance while retaining its previous appearance. She shrugs the questions off, for she has little interest in theology and she is quite content to toss in the phrase “mystery of faith” whenever it will do the most good.

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Many people like my fictional Professor Mastersen actually exist. There’s lots of people who view themselves as perfectly good and perfectly sincere believers in some standard version of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, nevertheless, accept unquestionably the propositions the Darwinian theory of biological evolution, which many other Christians think incompatible with the creeds of their respective faith. These people are the despair of both the swaggering atheistic scientific colleagues and the less liberal members of the clergy. Professor Mastersen is well aware and rather amused that her parish priest would like for to take the Pope’s pronouncements more seriously. She is also aware that her atheistic colleagues make jokes about her religious beliefs behind her back. She is equally indifferent about both.

The question I want to discuss is this: Is Professor Mastersen behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way? If so, it is because she makes no attempt to weave the beliefs relevant to her professional activities together with those that dictate her Sunday church going. Well, should she make such an attempt? And if so, why?

We can hold contradictions by making distinctions

One might retort that we all have a moral obligation to think logically. Well, I say it’s not, perhaps, so off logic that one shouldn’t hold contradictory beliefs. For it’s always possible, as St. Thomas remarked, we can dissolve a contradiction by making a distinction. It may seem for example, that I should not both accept the Copernican sun-centered theory, and still believe that the sun is moving steadily closer to the horizon. But, of course, I resolve the contradiction by distinguishing between the astrophysical and the common-sense descriptions of the sun’s motion. For most people, it is common-sense to think that the sun moves around us, simply because that’s the way it appears! At Mass, it may seem that I should not both believe that there is wet bread on my tongue and that I am partaking of the various substance of my God. But I can resolve that contradiction by distinguishing between the theological and the commonsense description (albeit theological description) of what’s going on. We make this kind of contradiction-distinction all the time.

When the courts decide hard cases, for example, they make distinctions that nobody has ever drawn up before in the hopes of avoiding the charge that they are treating like cases in unlike ways. This is done, for instance, in murder cases that make distinctions between premeditated and unplanned murder, as well as voluntary and involuntary murder. The courts make further distinction if the defendant is criminally insane. Thus, one can hold contradictory beliefs: one murderer ought to get life in prison because it was premeditated, while another murderer should be given leniency because he fell asleep at the wheel killing another motorist, involuntarily. The “logic” is not crystal clear. It’s never easy to say when such distinction-making is legitimate and when it’s not. The same judicial opinion is often described with equal conviction and honesty, as brilliant analysis and as disingenuous rationalization.

Two Different Vocabularies: one religious and the other scientific

When it comes to the purported clash between religion and science, however, it may seem difficult to wiggle one’s way out of the appearance of contradiction. For surely the universe was either planned by an intelligent being who’s concerned for our welfare and actions, or it’s a fortuitous assemblage of contingencies. It seems too simple to say that it can be described in one way on Sundays for religious purposes, and a different way on weekdays for all other purposes. The difference in describing the two ways of the universe are just too important to be shrugged off as distinction between alternative purposes. Furthermore, the differences between these two descriptions doesn’t seem analogous to the differences in the common-sense and the scientific descriptions of the motions of the sun and earth. For in the latter case we can escape contradiction by saying it is handy and harmless to have two different vocabularies, one for everyday purposes and another for scientific purposes. The relation between the statements made in these two vocabularies is not exactly contradictory but just a matter of speaking crudely and precisely.

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The crude way of speaking which tells us that the sun moves across the sky can be replaced with a more precise description of what’s going on, a description which saves and explains the appearances. But the scientist who is also a religious believer can hardly say that neither biology or the Catechism is a crude oversimplified but convenient way of speaking. For the scientific and religious vocabulary are equally refined and precise. Both purport to describe how we got here and where human beings come from – so one of them surely must be wrong. Anybody like Professor Mastersen, many people would say, must be schizophrenic or at least intellectually irresponsible.

Paul Tillich: science deals with the literal and religion deals with the symbolic

One particular way to defend people like Professor Mastersen against this charge of intellectually irresponsibility, is to distinguish between literal and symbolic truth. Paul Tillich, the great Protestant liberal theologian of the mid-century, said that the statements of science are to be taken literally true whereas the statements of religious faith are what he called “symbolic expressions of our ultimate concern,” that is, attempts to describe whatever it is that we love with all our heart, soul and mind. Tillich said we all have symbols of our ultimate concern, only some of which are personalized deities, the revolutionary power of the Proletariat is such a symbol for Marxists. Moreover, the incarnation is such a symbol for Christians and the poetic imagination was such a symbol for Coleridge. Just as Marxist allows for no empirical facts to spoil their image of the Proletariat, and just as the Positivists allow no one to interfere with physics and mathematics, so do Christians allow no empirical facts to dissuade their sure and certain hope of resurrection.

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Tillich’s point is that a debate between Marxists and Christians or between Marxists and Positivists is not like a debate between advocates of Ptolemy’s and Copernicus’ theories about the motion of the earth or like a debate between Darwinian’s and creationists. In the latter case, there is plenty in agreement about what phenomena need to be explained and room for debate about which explanations of those phenomena meets best familiar criteria. But in the case of the Marxist verses the Christian or the Buddhist verses the Hindu, it seems silly to try and get agreement on which phenomena need explanation or about criteria for satisfactory explanation. The whole idea about explaining phenomena seems out of place in reference to these disagreements. So liberal theologians like Tillich say, let’s think of religion and philosophy as dealing in symbols and science as dealing in facts. The same facts are compatible with the invocation of many different symbols.

I don’t think that Tillich was intellectually dishonest, but I also don’t think that his notion of symbols is particularly helpful. The cache value of the term ‘symbolic’ seems to be merely irrelevant to prediction and control (that is, the ‘literal’ is the stuff in science books that help us cure diseases, build bombs, etc. and the ‘symbolic’ stuff in non-scientific books is not useful for that purpose but is useful for some other purposes).

Science and religion are tools, rather than ways of getting to Truth

Tillich’s interpretation of theology as symbolic expression of Christian concern merely reiterates the claim that theology nowadays mustn’t compete with natural science in explaining how things have come to pass (how the human species got here for example). Nor is it to compete with science for making predictions, for those days are gone, once upon a time in the 17th century, the church made competing and predictive claims, but since then, they have given up on making those claims. This is why the church has become immune to empirical disconfirmation and why acquiring or losing belief in God is more like falling into or out of love than winning or losing an argument.

It seems more helpful to forget about the literal/symbolic distinction (of Tillich) and just to say that since the development of modern science, religious and scientific beliefs have become tools for doing different jobs. Scientific belief helps us predict and control events in space and time. This job, before the Enlightenment, was to be done by cosmogonic hypothesis pervade by priests and prophets, but it can now be done better. Religious belief gives us a way of thinking about our lives that puts them in an emotionally satisfying context. Religion oversteps its bounds when it picks a quarrel with science, as when the Christian clergy picked quarrels with Galileo and then with Darwin, and science oversteps its bounds when it tells us we have no right to believe in God, now that we have better explanations of the phenomena that God was previously used to explain.

This way of reconciling science and religion requires one to abandon the idea that there is one way the world really is, and that science and religion are competing to tell us what that way is. Abandoning that idea is easiest if one thinks of beliefs as tools for accomplishing a purpose rather than as attempts to represent the intrinsic nature of reality, the way things are in themselves. Instead of insisting there is such a way, one will hold that although there are alternative descriptions of things [descriptions useful for different purposes] none of these get us any closer to the way things really are than any other. On this view the sole virtue of any descriptive vocabulary is its utility. It can’t have a further virtue called “getting things right”.

Neither science or religion get us to the Truth

To assume there is an intrinsic nature of reality is to assume that there is a portal to an absolute [T]ruth, concrete essence, and knowledge that is grounded. This is akin to Plato’s perfect Forms floating high above in the heavens as pure representations of the things below. To believe in the intrinsic nature of reality is to think that [T]ruth is floating somewhere in the heavens and scientific proofs can uncover that [T]ruth or that holy scripture or Divine revelation can reveal [T]ruth. The idea that science helps us uncover truth is has useless as thinking that phlogiston theory uncovers the truth of combustion and rust. The idea that God helps us uncover truth is has useless as thinking the saw is the best tool for building a house. The idea that rational arguments help us uncover truth is has useless as Aristotle thinking ‘the facts’ show that the earth is at the center of the universe. Just as it is useless for the religionists to say morals come from a moral Lawgiver, it is useless for the secular person to argue that “the facts demand …,” “logic demands …,” or “reason demands …,” as if there is an external [T]ruth that fact, logic and reason point toward.

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A pragmatist’s view: we call a belief true when we conclude that no competing beliefs serve the same purpose equally well

This technique of reconciliation also requires one to say there’s no such thing as the search for truth, if that search is conceived as something distinct from the search for greater human happiness. For all we know about truth, from a William James and John Dewey pragmatist view, is that we call a belief true when we conclude that no competing beliefs serve the same purpose equally well. We want prediction and control, and scientific beliefs give us that. We also want our lives to have significance, we want to love something with all our heart, soul, and mind, and philosophical and religious belief gives us that. Different human needs give rise to different ways of describing ourselves and the world, thus different candidates for belief. These candidates are, so to speak, running for different offices so they need not get in each other’s way. They all deny that things have intrinsic nature as opposed to useful descriptions.

These ways of thinking about truth, belief and reality add up to the view of knowledge common to the American pragmatist, to Nietzsche, and common to such post-Nietzschean European philosophers as Heidegger and Derrida. All these thinkers give up on the idea of reality as-it-is-in-itself, and the idea that the search for Truth (capitalized “T”) is an attempt to represent the intrinsic nature of things.

The views these thinkers share is sometimes called social constructivism, but that’s misleading. These thinkers are not saying that what we use to think was discovered is actually our own invention, rather they are simply reiterating that we can make no sense of the suggestion that one description is closer to the way things really are, apart from any human needs, purposes or interests than some other description. The best we can do is discover that one description is more useful for the satisfaction of one or another human need but hardly for the satisfaction of all human needs.

These philosophers (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida) all deny that truth is a matter of correspondence to the way things are independent of our needs, for, they argue, there is no way we could ever test for such correspondence. Any proposed test would have to compare the ways we talk about things with the way things are apart from being talked about- and we have no idea of what such comparison would look like. For example, if we want to talk about Western Democracy being the best form of government, we have no independent [T]rue form of Democracy by which to test it up against. For every democracy is tainted with something that can be perceived as undemocratic. So ‘democracy being the best government’ cannot correspond to something “out there”, by which, we can then conclude, “Ah Ha! This is true!”

Who do we demand evidence from?

Is evidence something which floats free of human projects or is the demand for evidence simply a demand for the satisfaction of one particular human need – the need for agreement and belief when engaged in cooperative social projects? William James thought it was the latter.

On James’s view he says: it’s reasonable to demand evidence from those of whom we are engaged in a common enterprise, for example, when we are dealing with judges who are trying to make our country’s laws hang together. But when we are engaged in private idiosyncratic projects, such as the search for meaning in religion, it’s not clear that we have an obligation to produce evidence. For James, to search for truth is to search for beliefs that work; for beliefs that get us want we want.

When Professor Mastersen searches for the best explanation for a puzzling biological fact she, of course, is bound to look for an explanation which will be supported by evidence available to her fellow scientists. But on James’s view this is not because she is seeking truth as opposed to happiness, rather she is seeking tools that will do a certain job that certain human beings have taken, namely putting together a comprehensive narrative of what spatio-temporal events were casually linked to which other spatio-temporal events, in particular how biological evolution works.

When she expresses her contempt of fundamentalist Catholics who reject Darwin, Professor Mastersen is expressing contempt for people who try to use old tools when new and better tools for doing the same job have already become available. When Professor Mastersen attends Mass, takes communion, and recites the creeds, she is not taking part in a cooperative quest for the best solution to a practical problem. She is no more answerable for demands for evidence than when she decided for whom to marry, or when she decided what graduate training to take up. She is seeking happiness in her own way, on her own time, for her own sake.

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We have no responsibility to truth; only a responsibility to other human beings

We have no responsibility to something called “truth.” To the contrary, our only responsibility is to other human beings. The question of whether there is evidence for a belief is a question of whether there exists a certain human community which takes certain relatively controversial propositions as providing good reasons for that belief. Where there is such a community, a community to which we want to belong, we have an obligation to our fellow human beings not to believe a proposition unless we can give some good reasons for doing so. Reasons of the sort the relevant community takes to be good ones. Where there is no such community we don’t. No one knows what would counts as non-question-begging evidence for the claims of the Catholic or Mormon Church to be the ‘one true church.’ But that should not matter to the Catholic or Mormon community. Biologists, on the other hand, know quite well what counts as evidence for Darwinism or creationism.

James, unfortunately, thought of the opposition between the responsibility to our fellow human beings and to ourselves in terms of a distinction between intellectual grounds and emotional needs. I think that that was a mistake. For that way of talking suggests a picture of two human distinct faculties with two distinct purposes, one for knowing and another for feeling. This picture has to be abandoned once one gives up, as James and others do, the idea that there’s a special human purpose called ‘knowing the truth’ interpreted as ‘getting in touch with the intrinsic nature of reality.’

It would have been better if James would have thrown out this faculty of psychology that draws a nice clean line between reason and emotion and substituted something like a picture of human minds as webs of belief and desire, so interwoven with one another that it’s not easy to tell if a choice has been made on particular purely intellectual grounds or emotional grounds.

Nor is it useful to divide areas of cultures or of life into those of which there is only objective knowledge and those of which there is only subjective opinion. These traditional epistemological distinctions are misleading ways of making a distinction between areas where we do have an obligation to other people to justify our beliefs to them and other areas in which we don’t have an obligation.

Religionists owe us no justification for their private internal beliefs

James intellect/passion distinction should be replaced with what needs justification and what doesn’t. A business proposal, for example, needs justification. However, a marriage proposal – in our romantic and democratic society – doesn’t. If someone asks you to marry them, you don’t demand, “justify your proposal.” But if someone asks you to invest in their company, it is on point to demand they justify why I ought to invest. This pragmatist ethic says, along with John Stewart Mill, our right to happiness is only limited by other people’s right to have their own pursuits of happiness interfered with. This right to happiness includes what James called “the right to believe.” More generally, it includes the right to faith, hope, and love. These three states of mind can also not be justified and typically should not have to be justified. Our only intellectual responsibilities are responsibilities to cooperate with others on common projects. Projects such as constructing a unified scientific theory or quantum physics, and not to interfere with their private projects of faith. For the latter, such as getting married or engaging with religion, the question of intellectual responsibility just doesn’t arise.

This may beg the question, when do people of faith assume responsibility for the justifications of their belief? Notice in the previous paragraph I spoke of common projects. Just as scientists, collaborating on common projects, need to justify their claims because it directly effects the public sphere, so do religious people when their claims go from personal to public. When we speak of legislating laws based precisely on religious suppositions, then justification is needed. But Professor Mastersen owes no one any justification as to why she attends Mass or takes communion.

Last Words

The initial question I set out to answer was this: is Professor Mastersen behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way? If so, it is because she makes no attempt to weave the beliefs relevant to her professional activities together with those that dictate her Sunday church going. Well, should she make such an attempt? And if so, why? My contention from the outset is that she is in fact not behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way. Moreover, religion and science are simply two different tools used for different purposes. Just as Professor Mastersen owes no one justifications of why she chose to be a scientist rather than a gardener, she owes no one an explanation has to how she derives meaning, purpose and significance from a belief in the divine.

 

 

 

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Concepts as Absolute Truth

 

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I was sitting in a Bible study last week and couldn’t help but notice how Christianity is built on a Mount Everest of human-constructed concepts. Within an hour, I heard such phrases as “God is love,” “God is just,” “It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus,” and “God protects us.” What stands out with these concepts is that they are not beliefs that can be concretely known. Rather, they are statements of faith based on hope. I found myself smugly thinking, “none of these Christian concepts are even demonstrably real!” The implicit conclusion in my thinking is that Christian concepts are illusory, but I – on the other hand – possess concretely “real” beliefs. But this is not true at all.

A concept is an abstract notion, or general idea. Concepts are not regarded as facts, rather they are an amalgamation of ideas that form a basis or conclusion. Unlike an idea which is more akin to a mental inkling, a concept has gone through some fine-tuning with a start and end point. Everyone is guided by concepts in order to make sense of the world. Even the secular person abstracts concepts from this world and acts as if it’s concrete reality. Several secular examples include: (1) there is an inherent worth and dignity in every person, (2) we ought to pursue justice, equity and compassion in human relations, (3) a democratic process through collaboration and cooperation is more valuable than an authoritarian style, and (4) love is real. All four of these examples represent concepts that are abstracted out of “reality” and embraced as possessing some intrinsic real-ness. There are some heavy concepts laced into these four examples that secular people define and defend quite effortlessly. Words like ‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘love’ seem real and objective to the secular person, just as it seems for the Christian who utters with supreme confidence “God is love.”

Let’s stick with “love” for just a minute. For the secular person, even something as simple and common as love between two people may seem like an obvious concrete reality, but really, it has no sustenance. All love is, is a feeling abstracted out of a relationship that takes form and shape based upon how one defines “love.” One person may define love as being unconditional and/or a much deeper feeling than affection. Another person may define “love” as a feeling one experiences when they (finally) feel secure and not alone. There are innumerable ways to articulate love, however, we are at an impasse as to any type of precision that makes ‘love’ a concrete reality – it is simply a floating and fleeting concept.

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My point is whether it is love, justice, or human worth, these are concepts that we abstract from reality and give it a complexion that appears real and concrete. Just as Christians fight and kill for their abstract concepts (e.g. salvation), so do secular people for the sake of what they think is “right.” Ask ten secular people how to define “justice” and you’ll get eleven different responses. And ask ten Christians to define “image of God” and you will never get two answers that are the same.

Why is this important? It’s important because when we turn concepts into concrete objective reality, we fall victim to tunnel vision that only reveals our “truth,” which results in a type of tribalism that reinforces all-or-nothing and black/white thinking. The Christian falls prey to this when it comes to concepts such as heaven or hell, as well as the secular person when it comes to the concept of justice. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have concepts, because embracing concepts are inevitable. I’m simply encouraging us to not absolutize concepts, because in doing so we invariably retard our capacity to look to other viable possibilities.

Let’s face it, both Christian and secular people abstract from their world concepts that serve to help us make sense and articulate what appear true to us. Concepts, which are abstractions that we presume to mirror reality, are nevertheless our personal mental short-cuts that reflect our values and worldview. Thus, before we do an eye-roll at Christianity’s “delusions,” perhaps the secular person should reflect on their own concepts that are incubated in the same quicksand.

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Necessary Illusions: for the secular and religious

 

“With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live, one needs illusions” – Otto Rank  

kjoiubNot too long ago, I visited a husband who had just put his wife on our hospice service. I was there to provide counseling and guidance given that she had just received a terminal diagnosis. What made this case unique was that the patient and husband are only 41 years-young, with four beautiful children. I remember sitting in the car in front of their house’ preparing myself for the hurricane of grief and despair that await. Despair, however, was not what I found. I was greeted by the husband, I’ll call him Mike, who gave me a big smile and welcomed me into the house. I met two of their children and the patient as well. She shuffled into the living room appearing so frail and weak like she could break in two at any moment. The mood in the room was not at all what I expected. While they were obviously concerned and saddened by the recent news of terminal brain cancer, the family nevertheless smiled, laughed, expressed gratitude for hospice and the physicians, and kept thanking me for taking the time to visit them. Towards the end, I couldn’t resist, I had to ask the husband, “How is it that you are able to appear so positive given your wife’s dire condition?” He looked at me with a smile and said, “We’re Christian, and our faith in the overall goodness of God’s plan is what keeps us optimistic, even though terminal cancer is now a part of our story.”

I remember leaving the house thinking I was in the Twilight Zone. Surely their faith was a house of cards that would tumble to the ground as reality set in. He must be in denial, and his faith is a crutch that will leave him utterly disillusioned and inconsolable when the reality of being widowed sets in. I stayed in touch through their time on hospice. I was waiting – and assuming – that the veneer of optimism and hope would shatter, thus exposing the futility of a hope in God’s plan which includes cancer, pain, and heartache.

When she died a month later, Mike didn’t shatter. I remember calling him not long after she passed, and he spent the entire call expressing gratitude and joy for the time he had with his wife, and for his church family that surrounded him with love and compassion as he adopted his new role as a widow. There was that hope and optimism again! Sure, there was sadness at the loss, but he stood strong in the midst of the pain believing that God is good and in control.

This story buttresses what I have been long suspected, but have denied. The illusions we believe can serve to help us adapt and cope with the chaos and uncertainty that life provides. Whether Mike truly believes that God is literally real and watching over him or not, is not the point. The point is whether or not his belief has adaptive features to help him cope with life. Some people might say Mike is delusional in his thinking. Often people consider faith in a higher power as a crutch in order to deal with reality. But the truth is, every human – religious or secular – devises illusory crutches in order to cope with a chaotic world. In fact, our mental health depends on the illusory crutches that infiltrate our minds.

My contentions is simple: we need illusions to cope with life. Furthermore, religious belief is beneficial to mental well-being. In this essay, I will focus on the adaptive measures and necessity of illusions in our lives.

We need illusions because reality is crippling

I once heard atheist apologist Matt Dillahunty say something like I want to believe as many real and true things as possible and as few false things as possible (paraphrase). While this sounds reasonable, he forgets the fact that reality is crippling. What’s real is that one day my body will be shoved into a crematorium and reduced to ashes. And one thousand years from now, nobody will remember anything about me. While it’s true that what I do matters to me now, from a bird’s eye view of the grand scale of history –  it is utterly futile. To cope with the fact that every day is one day closer to the end, I must lean on illusions in order to avoid despair and suicide. We all do.

imagesnmnmT.S. Eliot had it right when he said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We cling to our illusions even if they contradict the obvious. Could it be, though, that reality is not an illusion but that our version of reality is an illusion? In other words, none of us are perceiving reality for what it is but rather for what we wish it to be. The problem with reality is that it’s like a dinner party in which each guest is confined to their own experiences, interpretations, biases, and presuppositions. Thus, one guest thinks everyone is boring, another that some are judging them harshly, and another thinks they are the most intelligent in the room. One simply cannot see things as they really are, we cannot be aware of reality, given that illusions act as mediators.

There is a difference between what something is and what we think it is. Actually what
we think is utterly inconsequential to what is. Illusions do not exist in the world (out there) but in here. The inner world is fertile ground for illusions to take root which then get projected into the world, thus influencing the perception of others about reality. These distortions, in the realm of reality, have no purpose other than to help us cope with the uncertainties that life brings. But first, what is an illusion?

An illusion is a perception that represents what is perceived in a way it is in reality. An illusion is a false mental image or conception which may be a misinterpretation of a real appearance or may be something imagined. It may be pleasing, harmless or even useful [Random House Dictionary, 1976, page 662]. Because lying subterranean within us all is the knowledge of our mortality. We do not want to live in reality but are comfortable living in illusion and we believe that somehow the gain far outweighs the effort needed to eliminate them. Most importantly, these illusions keep one mentally healthy.

What are the attributes to a mentally healthy person

To begin with, the vast majority of religious belief serve to enhance one’s mental well-being. Most religious beliefs promote virtues which include reverence for the sacred, abstaining from the profane, an appreciation for strengthening social bonds through community. While religion does have a bloody history, the Enlightenment has helped us apply more reason to faith. My focus is not on the extremely small percentage that are radical dogmatist who seek to terrorize, but rather on the majority who use religious beliefs, albeit illusory, to cope with the uncertainty of life. Overall, modern religion possesses strategies to enhance one’s mental well-being.

dyuuyuIf we are going to discuss mental well-being, let’s discuss the attributes of a mentally healthy person. Most experts agree that the ability to be happy, or at least relatively contented, is one hallmark of mental health and well-being. The acclaimed psychologist Marie Jahoda identified several additional criteria that will help us understand what good mental health looks like. Jahoda notes that ideal mental health is the ability to hold positive attitudes towards oneself, rather than to feel distress or anguish over one’s inadequacies or short-comings. Second, the ability to grow, develop, and move towards one’s goals. Finally, the capacity to develop an autonomous self-regard that does not require the reassurance of other people for meaning and sustenance. We can couple Jahoda’s criteria with Sidney Jourard and Ted Landsman’s viewpoint:

[The healthy personality] is guided by intelligence and respect for life, so that personal needs are satisfied and so that the person will grow in awareness, competence and the capacity to love the self, the natural environment, and other people. (Jourard, S.M., & Landsman, M.E.P. (1980). Healthy Personality: An approach from the viewpoint of humanistic psychology (4th ed.). New York: Macmillan.)

Most religious belief does not impinge on personal growth, self-awareness, and respecting life. In fact, most religious belief strives to enhance all of the criteria listed above. Again, we can always point to religious extremists who subjugate, oppress, and incite anger; but this is not the norm. To the contrary, most religious illusions on the afterlife, a personal loving God, and prescriptions for viewing the sacred all seek to strengthen social bonds and provide strategies for coping with the evils of the world.

The secular person may respond by listing all the evils of religion. Fair enough. My concern, however, involves whether or not the illusion has adaptive or maladaptive consequences for one’s mental health. Thus, if religious belief involves killing or oppression, we can put it up against Jahoda and Jourard’s research on the attributes of mental well-being and have a dialogue. Just as we can draw distinctions between good health and bad health, so we can with adaptive and maladaptive aspects of the beliefs or illusions we hold.

Illusions are ubiquitous

UCLA Psychology professor, Shelly Taylor, notes in her book Positive Illusions, “normal human thought and perception is marked not by accuracy but by positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. These illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear to actually be adaptive, promoting rather than undermining good mental health.” We ought not think that the religious person is full of fanciful magical thinking, while the secular person is fully in-touch with ‘reality’. What research shows is that even the secular person embraces illusions that serve an adaptive feature to personal well-being.

uiuiIn my line of work in dealing with death and dying, the most common illusion [especially with secular people] occurs when death is experienced. I am perpetually baffled at how people convince themselves that they are alright, just after their spouse of 50 years had died. Obviously, the act of denial serves a self-preservation role: if I don’t dwell on it, I’ll be able to move forward. And, in a lot of cases this illusion can be adaptive, as it can prevent one from spiraling into despair, suicide or depression. But it’s a common illusion nevertheless. The protection of our self, ego, and identity is so important; and we will adopt whatever illusions can preserve our self-concept.

I believe this is a very important point in demonstrating the ubiquitous of illusions, so allow me to provide eight palpable examples of the illusions that both secular and religious people live by:

#1 We overestimate our abilities: We are introduced to self-deceptive methods early on in life. Young children do not differentiate very well between what they wish could be true and what they think is true, and thus they show wishful thinking in their estimations of their abilities [Stipek, D.J. (1984). Young children’s performance expectations: Logical analysis or wishful thinking? In I. Nicholls (Ed.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 3, pp. 33-56), Greenwich, CT: JAI Press].

#2 We carry illusions to protect our image. When asked to describe themselves, most people mention many positive qualities and few, if any, negative ones. Even when people acknowledge that they have faults, they tend to downplay those weaknesses as unimportant or dismiss them as inconsequential [Alicke, M.D. (1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and uncontrollability of trait adjectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 1129-1140].

#3 We carry illusions to bolster our self-conception. Most people see themselves as better than others and as above average on most of their qualities. When asked to describe themselves and other people, most people provide more positive descriptions of themselves than they do of friends. This tendency to see the self as better than others occurs across a wide variety of tasks and abilities [Brown, J.D. (1986). Evaluations of self and others: Self-enhancement biases in social judgements. Social Cognition, 4, 353-373].

#4 We carry illusions to enhance our ego. A consistent and ubiquitous research finding is that people take credit for good things that happen and deny responsibility for the bad things that happen [Bradley, G.W. (1978) Self-serving biases in the attribution process: A reexamination of the fact or fiction question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36, 56-71]

#5 We use the illusion of logic and order in order to fend off dread. As Ernest Becker stated, “Through the imposition of logic and order on the world we spare ourselves the constant realization of the random terror of death.” As an example, we believe that people succeed through their own efforts, and this leads us to impute effort to those who are highly successful and laziness to those who are not. Even if evidence is all around us suggesting that events are less orderly and systematic as we think they are, rarely do we develop a full appreciation of this fact. The failure to recognize the role of random, unsystematic forces in many aspects of life may come, in part, from our need to see the world as a systematic and orderly place [Ryan, W. (1971). Blaming the victim. New York: Vintage Books].

#6 We carry with us the constant illusion of control. Psychologist Ellen Langer argues that most people succumb to an illusion of control, in which they believe they can affect events more than is actually the case. For instance: gambling. Gambling is a clear case in which the relative importance of personal control and chance are often confused. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who once took a job as a croupier in Las Vegas, noted that dealers who experienced runs of bad luck, leading the house to lose heavily, ran the risk of losing their jobs, even though the reason for the run of bad luck was ostensibly chance.

#7 We don’t [want to] appreciate chance because illusions give us a sense of control. When people were able to choose their own lottery card, as opposed to having it chosen for them, they were less likely to turn it in for a new lottery card that offered them a better chance of winning, simply because they felt it was not their card and they wanted to hold onto it. The longer a person held on to a lottery card and presumably had time to think about the likelihood of winning and he could do with the money, the less likely he was to turn the lottery card in for a ticket in a drawing with better odds. E.J. Langer was able to show that perfectly normal people engaged in a wide variety of superstitions and nonsensical behaviors in chance situations, when cues suggesting skill had been subtly introduced [Langer, E.J. & Roth, J. (1975) Head I win, tails it’s chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 951-955].

#8 We are able to generate illusory self-serving models of thinking. Psychologist Ziva Kunda suggests that people actively construct theories of why positive and negative events occur; in so doing they draw on their own attributes in order to defend against the possibility that the negative events might befall then and to enhance the perceived likelihood that the positive events will happen to them. For example, upon learning that the divorce rate for first time marriages is 50 percent, most people predict that they will not be in the 50 percent, but rather will remain married to their spouse throughout their lifetime. They convince themselves that this is the case, Kunda has shown, by highlighting their stable attributes that might be associated with a stable marriage and downplaying the significance of or actively refuting information that might suggest vulnerability to divorce. Thus, for example, one might point to one’s parents’ fifty-year marriage, the close family life that existed in one’s early childhood and the fact that one’s high school relationships lasted a full four years as evidence to predict a stable marriage. The fact that one’s husband has already been divorced once – a factor that predicts a second divorce – mist be reinterpreted not only as not leading to divorce in one’s own case but as a protective factor (“He knows he does not want this marriage to fail like the last one, and so he’s working especially hard to keep our relationship string”). The ability to draw seemingly rational relationships between our own assets and good events and to argue away associations between our own attributes and negative events helps to maintain unrealistic optimism [Kunda, Z. (1987). Motivated inference: Self-serving generation and evaluation of causal theories. Journal of Social Psychology, 53, 636-647].

These examples illustrate that we are guided by a self-serving bias because we deeply care about the self that has been created. In order to protect our ego, self-conception and identity, we are held as prisoners to our own our self-schema. Self-schemas are enduring beliefs that people have about themselves. Descriptions such as intelligent, musical, overweight, funny – are examples of self-schemas. Self-schemas enable us to take in the information that fits our prior conceptions of what we are like and what interests us and simultaneously helps us cement those self-impressions. Self-schemas, then, reinforce our ego and sense of identity. To shatter one’s ego and self-schema is to leave one hopeless, disillusioned, and worthless. Illusions, however, help keep our ego and self-schema intact.

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Illusions on a Supernatural level

If illusions are ubiquitous, then why do religious people take it to a supernatural level? The tendency for humans to take their illusions to a supernatural level involves what psychologists call locus of control. Evolutionary psychologist Michael Shermer notes that “people who rate high on internal locus of control tend to believe that they make things happen and they are in control of their circumstances, whereas people who score high on external locus of control tend to think that circumstances are beyond their control and that things just happen to them.” (The Believing Brain, 77) Psychologists find that having a high internal locus of control leads you to become more confident in your own personal judgment, more skeptical of outside authorities and sources of information, and have a lower tendency to conform to external influences. In fact, people who consider themselves “skeptics” about the paranormal and supernatural tend to score high in internal locus of control, whereas self-reported “believers” in ESP, spiritualism, reincarnation, and mystical experiences in general tend to rate high in external locus of control.

The level of uncertainty in life can exacerbate the illusions that take over us. Bronislaw Malinowski’s famous studies of superstitions among the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific demonstrates that as the level of uncertainty in the environment increases so, too, does the level of superstitious behavior. We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. In Malinowski’s words,

“We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the elements of danger is conspicuous.”

What Malinowski found with the Trobriand Islanders, is that the further they sailed into the deep seas away from land – where risk was higher – the more illusions and superstitious behavior there were. Many of us are no different. Whether it is a belief in God or the secular person believing in the self-serving idea that they are more stable or intelligent than most people, the illusions serve an adaptive feature that helps us get cope and persevere.

meaningFinal Words

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” In the context of this essay, the abyss is the subterranean reality that resides in us all: we will one day cease to exist. Self-preservation is the disease that affects us all, and illusions are the medications we rely on. Illusions are the necessary distractions that turn our faces from the abyss, in order to avoid being engulfed in its darkness. The afterlife, God, Buddha, identity, and ego are the illusory constructions that make up the scaffolding of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Most of these illusory constructions serve an adaptive purpose. They help us cope with death, they incentivize the pursuit of virtues, and they strengthen social bonds. The illusions we believe can serve to help us adapt and cope with the chaos and uncertainty that life provides. Even the secular person needs illusions. After all, when you see through life’s illusions, there lies the danger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moral Development Through Our Role as Actors

I have recently become tired of highly philosophical books that I have read that boil morality down to a calculus. In this essay, I attempt to use social and child development to articulate moral development and its usefulness and necessity. To do so, I’m using my background in psychology and especially a few handy resources such as “The Essential Child” and “The Art and Science of Personality Development”, to name a few.

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We are all social actors on the stage of life, and our audience is everyone else. Morality is crucial to our performance because it will either bring applause or boos from our audience. And if there is one thing that is universal for all actors it’s this: we desperately care about what our audience thinks. No one wants to be the villain held in contempt by his community. To the contrary, we see ourselves in a theatrical performance as a protagonist who is beloved.

I am an actor whose morality is shaped by my audience. This morning, I held back from confronting a rude customer at Starbucks. Why is it that I restrained myself from, say, strangling the discourteous man who was taking out his anger on the barista? Well, because going off-script with aggression is not a scene that I want my audience to see. I’ve been a regular at this Starbucks for the last four years, and have perfected my role. I am ‘the professional’, friendly and well-dressed guy who sits in the corner and reads voraciously. If I were to impulsively strangle a rude customer, then the perception from my Starbucks audience would completely change my role. I would then become the well-dressed guy who may be a psychopath. Thus, I try to regulate my emotions so that I can stay in-character and on-script for a successful performance that is similar to the calm and cool Fox Mulder in The X Files, rather than Hannibal Lecter.

We don’t realize it, but we shape ourselves to fit other people’s perceptions, and these vary from one person and context to the next. We care about the perception of others because their perception is what helps us cultivate our acting role into, for example, loving spouse, loyal employee, trusting colleague, etc. As Charles Cooley long ago articulated through a tongue-twister, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” The point is that people shape their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them. We form our self-image as the reflections of the response and evaluations of others in our environment. As children we were treated in a variety of ways. If parents, relatives and other important people look at a child as honest and humble, they will tend to raise him with certain types of expectations. As a consequence, the child will eventually strive to uphold the morally good role of honest and humble person.

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We are all actors in the grand stage of life, and we desperately want our performance to mean something before the final curtain closes on our life. Our birth is our entry onto the theatrical stage, and we slowly morph and hone our role and script. Our everyday social life is no different than what happens on the theatrical stage. Simply put, social behavior as a series of performances through which actors play roles and enact scripts in order to manage the impressions of other characters in the social scene (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 42).

Our acting debut begins at birth, in which our audience is immediately captivated. From the standpoint of the social world into which they are thrown at birth, infants’ actions are interpreted in pretty much the same way that human beings interpret the social actions expressed by any other animate actor. We watch our babies the way we watch the characters in a movie. We observe every moment in order to make sense of what they are trying to express, especially eager to decode their emotions. Babies are social actors long before they realize they are social actors. They are social actors because that is what we, the social audience, observe them to be.

LET’S GO DEEPER

Let’s go deeper into the different aspects of moral development with respect to our role as social actors.

Writing the Script

The script for moral development begins with genes and environment. Genes and environments seem to work together on many different levels and in extraordinary ingenious ways. The relationship between genes and environments, therefore, is not much like a meeting of two independent forces (nature vs. nurture) but instead resembles something like a conspiracy. Nature shamelessly colludes with nurture. In the human case, genes and environments conspire to make a person, and to shape the traits that structure how that person moves through life as an actor on the social stage.

Northwestern University Professor, Dan McAdams, uses the example of a smiley baby to make the case. Let’s say a 4-month old infant is blessed with a genotype that predisposes him or her to positive emotionality and sociability. As a social actor, he or she smiles more than other babies do in response to social stimuli, and people (the audience) respond in kind. Smiling begets more positive interactions from other people, who themselves become major features of the developing infant’s “environment.” These environments feed-back to influence the development of the infant’s dispositional traits. A smiley baby will likely encounter more positive environments than a nonsmiley baby will encounter, by virtue of the fact that social actors evoke specific environments. Those evoked environments, in turn, may influence the development of the social actor’s traits (The Art and Science of Personality of Personality Development, 103).

kknmIn contrast to a smiley infant, an infant who hits other babies will evoke (hopefully) unfavorable reactions from the audience. To be clear, babies are born with preexisting tendencies, that are either reinforced or harnessed based on the response of the audience. You might say that the genes make the first move: the genotype expresses itself through behaviors that signal positive emotionality. Those behaviors then evoke responses that, as environmental influences, may subsequently exert an effect on the developing social actor. As the infant progresses into adolescence, he or she cultivates a rank-order of traits that evoke either favorable or unfavorable responses from the audience.

Setting the Stage

Setting the stage for social actors is one of the most crucial factors in moral development. In essence, the stage is the environment that one is born into. The stage includes socio-economic factors, education of parents, methods for disciplining/punishing, familial dynamics, and how authoritative yet nurturing the stage is for the developing social actor. In one longitudinal study, the researchers found that boys from low socioeconomic status who were raised in adverse family environments, and who exhibited low levels of fearfulness, empathy, and self-control as kindergartners, were especially likely to join deviant peer groups as teenagers (Archives of General Psychiatry, 63, 562-568). While the stage that parents set is important, it doesn’t guarantee that their tiny actor will hop on the yellow brick road of positive emotionality.

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Acting Style

If you were casting yourself in a Hollywood blockbuster, would you assume the role of an affable fun-loving protagonist or the angst-filled and aggressive antagonist that people avoid? We have to be honest: no reasonable minded human being would willingly choose the latter. A life driven by neuroticism and aggression is a miserable life. Furthermore, this is a life that will get you ostracized from all people. So, how do we assume a character that is more like Pollyanna as opposed to the Joker in the Dark Knight?

wdwAn acting style that is positive and extraverted will garner more favorable and encouraging reinforcement from the audience than one negative and introverted. To be clear, the actors style have to do with his or her temperament. The most notable features of temperament concern the actor’s performance of emotion – how the infant expresses and regulates the feelings that well up inside. Taking into consideration the difference in Pollyanna and the Joker, we have two broad emotional categories that include both positive and negative emotionality. Ask any parent and they will affirm that some babies feel good much of the time, and other babies don’t.

Why is positive emotionality in extravasation good? Extraversion’s prime evolutionary function is to attract and hold the attention of other social actors. For the particular kind of eusocial species that human beings have evolved to be, social actors show remarkable individual differences in their abilities to get along and get ahead in social groups. Social actors compete with each other to garner the limited resources that are available in the group.

Positive emotionality and extraversion is fostered in nurturing environments that is both authoritative and loving. Positive reinforcement when good actions are performed will help the actor understand how to garner praise from the audience. In contrast, punishment for bad actions will help the actor know that receiving boos is not a good thing. These experiences in early childhood help the young actor to solidify his or her leading role.

A friend of mine has a 12-year-old daughter who has morphed into the a virtuous role: peace-maker. She is a very positive and outgoing actor who knows how to read her audience well. My friend tells the story of when he overheard a dramatic event his daughter found herself in the middle of. Her three friends were arguing, and tensions were running high. Sensing that feelings were being hurt, his daughter manipulated the situation by causing a distraction. Her iPod was playing a popular song and she turned the music up. Within seconds, the group of girls were dancing, and the argument became a distant memory. In summary, his 12-year-old new knew the movie scene she was in was turning into a tragedy. She was aware that name-calling and slander evokes negative responses most audiences. Thus, her distraction altered the scene from a tragedy to something out of Nickelodeon. Interestingly enough, she is 20-years old now, and her ethics are still guided by fostering environments in which peace and compassion is fostered.

Going Off-Script

In 1981, Friday’s was featured on NBC as a new up-and-coming comedy. After initial low ratings, the producers decided to spice things up by bringing in a controversial comedian, Andy Kauffman. In his debut on the show, the producers along with Kauffman, conspired to have Kauffman go off-script and have a melt-down on live T.V. Unbeknownst to the rest of the cast and viewers at home, Kauffman enters the scene and immediately breaks off-script and tensions begin to flare on set. Eventually, a fight breaks out between Kauffman and Michael Richards, who is the only person in the scene who is aware that this is all staged. As you watch the other actors, you can see their frustration as Andy Kauffman emotionally disintegrates. Media and viewers alike showed their shock and discontent as Kauffman did the unthinkable by going off-script.

yuybiuhGoing off-script involves a type of neurotic cascade. Neuroticism has to do with the fear and anxiety a social actor has. The neurotic actor is one who is more reactive to signs if threat and negative emotion in the social world. They are exposed to more negative events which reinforces their tendency to appraise objectively neutral or even positive events in negative terms. They also experience mood spillover, whereby negative feelings in one area of life spill over into others. This leads to the sting of familiar problems. As they depict it, a day’s negative events can bring back into psychological play old issues and conflicts that were never resolved, which leads to more negative feelings, thoughts, and actions.

One can see the negative whirlpool that engulfs the neurotic actor. It’s definitely more of a Quentin Tarantino drama rather than a light-hearted comedy with a happy ending. You see, the neurotic actor is one who doesn’t receive the appropriate lessons while going through acting school. Or perhaps, his or her neurological make-up leans heavy towards fear and anxiety. Either way, the neurotic actor will display negative emotionality, poor social development, and difficulty managing impulses. The net result is a moral compass that struggles to point its needle toward the good and personal flourishment.

Staying on Script

As a whole, there is a grain and texture to all cultures that involves a script. The script is this: the more conscientious and agreeable you are, the better off you and everyone else will be. Staying on-script involves thinking about the other actors around you, learning how to interact with the roles that they have assumed. Moreover, staying on script means that you are working with the other actors to bring out the best for your audience.

[Self Regulate]

yviyughvStaying on script means that the social actor is able to regulate his or her performance on a daily basis. Self-regulation depends on the observation of the actor by an audience, be that audience in the real world or in the actor’s mind. Something or someone must keep watch. Actors watch other actions, which means they watch themselves as well. In social life, we each function simultaneously as actors and observers, as audiences for each other and for our own dramatic performances. In this reflective, observing sense, we regulate each other, and ourselves.

Over time, children learn which behaviors bring social approbation and which bring critique. As they seek to maximize reward and the feel-good experience of pride and minimize punishment and the feel-bad emotions of shame and guilt, children will gradually become something like the socialized and self-regulated actors that their ever-watchful audiences – parents, teachers, coaches, and superegos – want them to become.

[Effortful Control]

While self-regulation helps social actors fine-tune their role, this would be impossible without effortful control. Think of effortful control as the actor’s ability to stay in-character and follow the script. What is prompting you not run the person off the road who cuts you off, or pummel the barista who makes you the wrong drink? It’s effortful control. Effortful control is the active and voluntary capacity to withhold a dominant response in order to enact a subordinate response given situational demands. It consists of a collection of abilities and inclinations that centrally involve the executive control of attention and the inhibition of potentially distracting impulses.

[Conscience]

jhbkjhbijbSelf-regulation and effortful control may help us to understand how to stay on-script, but it doesn’t tell us why. In order to address this concern, we have to understand that every cognitively intact human being has a conscience. A conscience comes into fruition around 4-5 years of age and consists of two key components: rule-compatible conduct and moral emotions. Social actors exhibit an active conscience when they act in ways that are consistent with what the group norms suggest to be moral or good behavior. For young children, this typically boils down to doing what Mommy and Daddy say is the right thing to do, which often means putting on the brakes on what may seem to be the fun thing to do. Being able to subordinate impulses to longer-term aims in the family paves the way for rule compliance and the ability to cooperate with other authority figures and with peers on the broader social stages of the school and the playground.  Key moral emotions for the development of conscience include guilt and empathy.

Every society has rules for behavior and etiquette protocol that serve as heuristic tools to harness destructive behavior. As the child learns what these tools are, they invariably form social-moral emotions like embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride. Guilt, for example, serves as a check against immoral behavior for many people. Research consistently shows that the proclivity to feel guilt is negatively associated with immoral behavior. For example, web based studies of adults from across the United States have shown that people who score high on measures of guilt-proneness make fewer unethical business decisions, commit fewer delinquent behaviors, and behave more honestly when making economic decisions (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21). Guilt is good for you (usually), and good for the group. Guilt is one of the most powerful mechanisms ever invented by natural selection to ensure group solidarity and the self-regulation of individual social actors.

The net result of the actor who stays on script is that they will have a more pleasant performance on the grand stage of life. The self-regulated actor possessing effortful control and a conscience with moral emotions will be a conscientious and agreeable actor. But what’s so good about the conscientious and agreeable actor?

[conscientious and agreeable]

The conscientious and agreeable actor will me be the most aware of a moral system that benefits his role in the play, as well as the other actors around him. Conscientiousness encompasses characteristics of personality that center on hard-working, self-disciplined, responsible, reliable, dutiful, well organized, and how persevering a social actor is. People low in conscientious have little regard for the serious standards of work and morality. While their impulsive spontaneity may seem like a breath of fresh air in the face of stale social conventions, their irresponsibility and utter inability to stand by others or for anything in the long run make them very poor risks in friendship and in love.

dyuuyuSocial actors high in agreeableness are really nice people. But they are more than nice. Agreeableness incorporates the expressive qualities of love and empathy, friendliness, cooperation, and care. Social actors at the high end of agreeable continuum are described as interpersonally warm, cooperative, accommodating, helpful and patient. They are also described as ethical, honest, and peace-loving. For high levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness, as expressed in the realms of love, work, and healthy and mortality. The two traits are different, and share some common outcomes. For example, conscientiousness and agreeableness are both associated with more secure attachment relationships, better marriages and lower divorce rates, and a stronger personal investment in family roles (Psychological Bulletin, 126).

Final Words

Let’s face it, it is very difficult even to conceive of a niche in the world of work where it does not prove advantageous to be self-disciplined, responsible, and achievement-oriented. In the terms made famous by Freud, conscientiousness and agreeableness are fundamentally about restraining the impulsive id and accentuating the rational ego, or put differently, about regulating the self so that good things get done and good relationships get formed.

meaningfulWe are all social actors on the stage of life, and our audience is everyone else. For me, I hope to continue to evolve my character in order to bring about more good in my performance than bad. I strive for good and wholesome morals because I want to please my audience, thereby pleasing myself. One day I will enter my closing act and final scene. I can only hope that my performance has brought joy, insight, and inspiration to my audience. But for now, the show must go on.

 

 

 

 

 

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Secular Morality: Is it wrong to indiscriminately chop off heads?

Written in 4 hours with a Venti Mocha consisting of 5 shots of espresso. Throughout the writing of this essay, I maintained a heart rate of 155. 

What is a secular response to why one should do good? It is common for many to assume that non-theists don’t have a leg to stand on when confronting morality. A Christian I know recently asked, “What’s wrong with indiscriminately chopping off heads?” While the answer appears obvious at the surface, it prompts deeper reflection concerning how one justifies one’s answer – especially if they come from a secular worldview.

What’s Wrong with Indiscriminately Chopping Off Heads?

untitledAllow me to address this question, by posing a better question. Would you rather live in an environment where people could indiscriminately chop off heads, or would you prefer an environment that promoted the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings? Most rational individuals would choose the latter simply because it’s a better environment. After all, must we really argue that the liberties and freedoms that promote flourishing in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of people indiscriminately chopping off heads?

I believe that a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings is better than a society that promotes head chopping. But first, let me first clear up any confusions concerning what I mean by ‘flourishing’ and ‘sentient’. By flourishing I mean, the opportunity to create, explore, and experience life in order to actuate one’s potential as a human being. To do this within the confines of a society, there must be certain liberties, freedoms and laws that provide the protection and safety for its citizens to have the opportunity to flourish. Thus, I can rightly point out that citizens in, say, Canada are in a better environment than Somalia with its brutal, impoverished and lawless condition. Second, by sentient I mean, those who are emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and therefore able to feel and suffer. I am drawing a distinction between humans and particular animals than, say, crustaceans at the bottom of the sea. For this essay, however, I will focus on humans.

This question (which environment would you prefer?) is a good launching pad for a discussion concerning the title of this essay. By beginning with a comparison of polar opposite environments, it puts us in a position in which we can further elucidate and thereby attempt to justify the ‘why’ and the ‘what’: why one is better than the other, and what exactly makes one better or worse. The ‘why’ in my argument focuses on the fact that our survival and flourishing is universal for humans. The ‘what’ focuses on the virtues, liberties and freedoms that are necessary to promote cooperation and harness greed, violence, theft, etc.

meaningAny talk about flourishing automatically presumes living a particular way and comprising of a particular quality of life; one in which we honor the rights of others and seek a certain kind of character in order to become a particular kind of human group that has maximized its potential. I nevertheless smuggle in values and moral ‘ought’s’ into my argument because we know through our instinct and empirical analysis that a cooperative society banding together is better than a society of free loaders (and it doesn’t take long for any society to devise rules to punish free loaders!). As Darwin wrote:

“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes.”

What makes a society better than one advocating head-chopping, is that the values of reciprocity, cooperation and altruism act as a kind of incubator for cultivating a flourishing environment. In other words, you don’t get flourishing human beings in environments that elevate selfishness, greed, and hate. Let’s look closer at what I mean by survival and flourishing.

First, a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is better because we universally prefer to stay alive over death. It usually takes a cataclysmic despairing event or an extremely painful disease in order for one to completely give up on life. The reason for this reality is that all living things are born with biological systems oriented toward self-preservation. Over billions of years, a vast array of complex life-forms has evolved, each distinctively adapted to survive long enough to reproduce and pass their genes on to future generations. Fish have gills; rose bushes have thorns; squirrels bury acorns and retrieve them much later; termites eat wood. There seems to be no limit to the variety of ways creatures of all species adhere to the fundamental biological imperative: staying alive.

Second, we universally (and instinctively) prefer to flourish and thrive rather than live with fear and trembling.* A cursory look at the research conducted by anthropologists through ethnographies demonstrate that there is a universal thirst for an enduring happiness, serenity and fulfillment. Furthermore, here is a desire for wholeness, for freedom, and an authentic and sustained love. This is evidenced by the fact that every society that we know of has created social mechanisms and institutions in order to thwart greed, laziness, deceit and cheating. Moreover, we have yet to find a remote tribe whereby greed is rewarded and honesty is punished. We create these social mechanisms, institutions and rules for behaving in order to cultivate a civil society. Even the remote tribe in Malaysia, the Chewongs, have rules and social mechanisms concerning dividing up and sharing food so that no one goes without. Whether it’s a remote tribe or a suburb of Chicago, we instinctively crave and pursue human flourishing.

[*Granted, some people do live with fear and trembling due to bad choices or psychological illness, but I’m comfortable with presuming if they had a ‘do-over’ or magic wand that could change their psych issues, they would gladly change it.]

life-2Natural Rights: What We Deserve

When you put together the universal need for survival and flourishing, we can conclude that the freedom to pursue both, is a natural right. By natural right, I mean it is universal and unalienable, and thus, not contingent only upon the laws and customs of a particular culture or government. As Michael Shermer notes in The Moral Arc, “Natural rights theory arose during the Enlightenment to counter the belief in the divine right of kings, and became the basis of the social contract that gave rise to democracy, a superior system for the protection of human rights. This is what the English philosopher John Locke had in mind in his 1690s Second Treatise of Government, (which was written to rebut the divine rights of kings) when he wrote: “The state of nature has a law to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.’”

As a natural right, the personal autonomy of the individual gives us a criteria by which we can judge actions as right or wrong: do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings? Morality is not arbitrary, relative, or completely culture-bound. Morality is universal. We are all born with a moral sense, with moral emotions that guide us in our interactions with other people, and that are influenced by local culture, customs, and upbringing. Nature endowed us with the capacity to feel guilt for the violation or promises and social obligations, for example, but nurture can tweak the dial up or down. Thus, morality is real, discoverable, “out there” in nature, and “in here” as part of our human nature.

Due to my moral sense, I cannot morally justify indiscriminate head chopping. Furthermore, I do not need a god in the sky to make this a realization for me. My life, health, liberty and possessions are of value to me, and I want to expand these rights because it is good. A society that fosters these ideals will possess more opportunities for its citizens to flourish. There is a logical reason why every society seeks to harness violence, greed, etc. We can easily put ourselves in the shoes of those who suffer under terror and oppression, and we cringe. We cringe because we never want that for ourselves. And we want to avoid those environments of terror because we know we cannot flourish or thrive.

I have no good reason to genuflect to a god or higher power, rather, my reverence goes toward a humanity that keeps expanding the moral circle of compassion, empathy, and cooperation. The evidence of this expanding moral circle is shown; not from heaven, but in the objective evidence we see when we compare societies which promote liberties, cooperation, and freedoms with those that don’t.

rtThe Contrarian’s Response

Perhaps the contrarian might rebut my argument my asserting that flourishing is doing exactly what you want. As an example, the Cambodian political tyrant, Pol Pot, “flourished” by pursuing his passions, despite the thousands of deaths perpetrated by his regime. First off, I don’t believe any reasonable person- who is cognitively competent – actually believes that this is a sufficient example highlighting flourishing. If it was a sufficient example, I believe that more people would naturally be inclined to pursue the path of mass slaughter. Furthermore, to the person using Pol Pot as an example, I would ask, “Why don’t you pursue the same flourishing as Pol Pot, and start your reign of terror today?” There is a reason why the contrarian will shake his head “No”. Perhaps because the contrarian knows that that’s not flourishing.

The contrarian may retreat, and opt for a subtler example. Rather than flourishing being the pursuit of whatever passions (however brutal they may be), flourishing is more like egoism. By egoism, I mean the theory that one’s self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of one’s own action. This is more palpable because we are all guilty of having deliberated moral dilemmas by concluding that our own self is, or should be, the driving force for our final decision. The problem with this, however, is that the vast amount of meaning and significance we experience in the world involves other people. Furthermore, we are naturally social creatures, thus, in order to commune within community, it involves a bit of selflessness. And, after all, the egoist will have a lonely life given we do not naturally gravitate to people who are all about themselves. Finally, egoism goes against the building blocks of how societies become societies:  kin altruism (‘blood is thicker than water’) and reciprocal altruism (‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’) form the building blocks to a cooperative society, because cooperating (selflessly!) reaps more benefits than simply striving for your own ends.

Consequences: The Price for Doing Whatever You Want

But why frame flourishing in terms of virtuous deeds? We naturally frame flourishing in terms of virtuous behavior because we are keenly aware that there are consequences for our actions. Let’s face it, there are consequences for doing whatever the heck we want. Most reasonable people do not frame flourishing in a subjective or relativistic way, as: flourishing is whatever you feel is right. Moreover, most people try and harness egoism because we instinctively know that the consequences may affect your reputation, your future and the relationships around you.

It’s hard for any cognitively competent human being to escape reflecting upon the potential consequences of one’s actions. We instinctively know that consequences matter because we live within cultures that punish ‘bad’ behavior. Whether through prison, getting fired, or being ostracized from your community, we know that our duplicitous actions have consequences. Sometimes though, we react instinctively without thinking, and we do bad. However, excluding crimes of passion or knee-jerk reactions that end with suffering, we naturally go through a cognitive deliberative process that includes a cost-benefit analysis in our thinking. Whether it’s ‘do we take grandma off the ventilator?’ or ‘should I lie to get out of this problem?’, we are inclined to consider the consequences.

knlknFinal Thoughts: Moral Foundation

The importance of the question, “What’s wrong with indiscriminately chopping off heads?”, is important because it forces us to consider a moral foundation. Now, you can build a moral foundation from very simple beginnings: life is generally preferable to death; pleasure is generally preferable to pain; health is generally preferable to sickness; and it doesn’t matter is these are arbitrary things that we plucked out of nowhere, or if they’re intuitions, or if they’re about our emotions, it doesn’t matter where they came from – we hang on to them, because they prove to be useful and true. We evaluate the consequences of our actions with respect to specific goals. That’s how we determine right and wrong.

The theist may argue that without God, it’s all relative; the secular person has no absolutes. But God is not the solution. The only place you can find a viable solution is in secular moral systems. Every religion disagrees with every other religion, within these religions you have denominations that disagree, and within denominations you have churches that disagree. The theist has to make some type of demonstration that that there is a good reason for me to listen to that authority; and how do you do that? You do that by evaluating the consequences of actions to goals, you consider the effects of things on living things, and you use reason and evidence. The beauty of a secular moral system is that it is data driven, it’s able to correct itself, we can begin with those foundational principles, and if we find out that any of them are wrong we can change them.

This idea that there are absolutes is also wrong. Because with any specific situation there is not one absolute answer that addresses every moral situation. But within a specific situation I think there are absolutes because in any given situation there’s a finite pool of possible actions that one can take. We can compare the results of those actions with each other. Some of them are gonna be better, and some are gonna be worse. Which means, by definition, there is some subset of actions that represent the moral pinnacle for that situation. We may not have the first clue of what it is.

If you pull up a mid-game chess position and you ask people, “what’s the best move?” you will get a variety of answers; and they could be right. Doesn’t necessarily have to be one right answer, we could get a couple of not so good answers, a couple of optimal answers, but by and large, we’re able to determine which options are better and right. And it’s the experts who have studied chess, who are able to see further. The fact that there are multiple right answers, doesn’t mean that we just throw up our hands and forfeit the game. The fact that there are multiple right answers means humans are winning.

The lie that religion gave me is that there is this one cut-and-dry path to knowing the truth. When we’re kids, we ask “why” and we would always get that answer: “because I said so.” That’s religion. Religion is offering, “because I said so.” And that answer might have been fine when Moses was leading multitudes of Hebrews thousands and thousands of years ago. But “because God said so” is not an explanation, because when I ask “why?”, what I’m looking for is something underneath, something with explanatory power that increases our understanding.

The reason why secular morality is superior is because we say so. And I don’t mean that in a relativistic way. But we’ve been able to build off of the foundation that other people have left us; and learn what works, and what doesn’t. One of the best features about a secular morality is that it’s about getting better. Not only that, it’s about getting better, at getting better. We can revise what we believe and make improvements, and it’s all based on evidence.

It’s for all of these reasons why I don’t indiscriminately chop off heads. Not because god said, “it’s bad.” Rather, because I want for society what I want for myself: a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings. If I compare the morality of the Medieval period with today, it’s obvious that human rights are progressing. Life is getting better. Thus, I can do my part in expanding the moral circle through promoting survival and flourishing of all sentient beings.

Except, I will continue to eat murdered cows. Uhg, moral dilemmas!

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Against Hope

This essay was written over a two day period, and inspired by a conversation with a good friend. He is inspired by the philosophy from the book ‘The Secret.’ Hope is, now more than ever, an important pillar in his life.  However, hope is a pillar in the lives of most people I know. But I wonder if hope can actually lead to more pain than peace?

Hope: The religious need it for refuge, because they cannot cope with death; the weak depend on it because they lack the strength to look at suffering in the eye; the fearful beg for it because a fantasy is better than now;  but it’s the courageous who live without it.  – Wes Fornès

j['opimI wrote this essay to show that if we want to understand life and ourselves more clearly, we ought to abandon hope and cultivate self-awareness, acceptance and optimism into our lives.

What do we tend to think of hope?

Hope tends to be a looked upon as a virtue held in high esteem. I’m reminded of Jesse Jackson’s 1992 speech on which he encouraged the public to “keep hope alive.” Psychologist and researcher, Dr. Anthony Scioli, describes hope as not just the belief that a better future is possible, but that we have the power to make it so. Hope inspires us to do better. When you’re hopeful, you take action to create something better because you believe that you have the capability to do so. There is always a path to healing. We need to believe that healing is possible. The alternative is to quit, to stand still, to believe that we’re doomed. Hope is viewed as good and needed in life. After all, when caught in despair and tragedy, hope is what frees us from the muck and mire of life. Hope serves as an oasis in the distance that provides the destination of where we ought to go for refuge.

To be honest, I think this picture of hope is misleading and leads to more disillusionment than happiness. I believe that hope is more about creating a fictitious future world in order to get one unstuck from their present misery. Hope is a refuge for the timid. I believe we can take action and have optimism about the future; without hope.

Hopelessness

My argument is for hopelessness. I contend that if we want to understand life and ourselves more clearly, we ought to abandon hope and cultivate self-awareness, acceptance and optimism. Hope is simply an escape from our present experience as we create a future of how our life ought to be. The problem is that the future is an illusion of our own creation, of which, we simply have such limited control. Furthermore, hope often serves as a mechanism for denial. By keeping our present dissatisfaction and suffering at bay, we deny it, while creating “the perfect” future which never leads to fulfillment. My point is this: hope is often the obstacle to people experiencing peace and happiness. Let’s get down to the bare bones of hope.

oioHope arises out of a desire or need for a better future. Hope is a kind of wanting, wishing, and frustration with our present situation. It is a desire for our life to be different or better somehow. It is wanting to be there instead of here. It is the old “grass is greener on the other side” in action. Think about it like this, if you were truly happy and satisfied, would you really need to lean on hope? Well, you might say, “I would hope that this satisfaction I feel now continues for much longer!” Okay, but even that is rooted in a dissatisfaction of the way things were before. Hope provides the escape plan for our present misery and unhappiness.

Because hope is rooted in our dissatisfaction with the present, we can rightly say hope is an emotionally generated desire. It’s an emotionally generated desire by which we wish for something in the future, because we are dissatisfied with the present. Imagine a child just about to undo the wrapping paper on his birthday present. He might close his eyes really tightly and say, “I hope, I hope, I hope.” It is a kind of magic incantation which is consistent with a child’s mind. When we invest our well-being in the very hope we create, we are doing just what the child does.

Deconstructing Hope

First, hope distorts reality. Many who hope, implicitly believe their thoughts or feelings can directly impact reality; as if, they, and external reality are one. To paraphrase from the best-selling book ‘The Secret’, if you think it you can be it. This is similar to the above statement of the child unwrapping his present all the while hoping for a particular item – as if his hoping will make his expectation come true. What’s the problem with making up our reality? Well, it’s just that: made up. Thus, we set ourselves up for dashed hopes and disillusionment when we soon realize our own false reality. Even if we get to the hoped-for destination, we realize that ultimate happiness isn’t waiting for us. Discontentment remains, or we simply want more.

hhSecond, hope is intertwined with fear. We hope because we fear. If it weren’t for fear, there wouldn’t be a need for hope. This was encapsulated long ago by the well-known Stoic named Seneca (4 BCE-65 ACE) when he wrote,

“[t]hey [hope and fear] are bound up with one another, unconnected as they may seem. Widely different though they are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor does their so moving together surprise me; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.”

A good alternative to hope is to cultivate courage for the present, rather than escaping the present with a future fantasy rooted in hope. It’s important to cross-examine hope because fear is the subtle nuance that gets lost. Perhaps when we feel like hope is creeping in, we should examine what fear is accompanying the hope.

Second, hope causes us to mistake our inner (hopeful) feeling for an action-producing energy or medium. Hope is a mind-based future reality that we’ve created, it has absolutely nothing to do with action. One can hope that they can escape their abusive relationship, but hope has nothing to do with the steps needed to take right now in order to get to a safer environment. Instead, the abused should ask themselves, “What can I do right now to improve my environment?” This way, we remain in the present, and begin taking action towards a better tomorrow. Keep in mind, you don’t need hope to take action, or improve your future.

Third, hope involves certainty. And with certainty comes dashed hopes and disillusionment. To borrow from Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It [hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Hope involves the belief that whatever that’s hoped for, is the way it ought to be. In other words, our dissatisfied desire propels us to construct and concretize a future world. The problem with certainty is that nothing is certain, and nothing is guaranteed. When we begin making demands from the universe, we will be in for a rude awakening. The world simply doesn’t care about your demands.

Fourth, hope can paralyze. It’s common to hope for something to happen, yet do nothing in the present to actualize anything in our lives. It’s the person hoping for financial bliss in the future, but doing little now to save. It’s the person hoping for a job promotion, but not taking action now to make it happen. It’s the religious who hope for an afterlife because they’re too scared to make the most out of their current life. This is the danger of hope: we make so many investments for the future, that we remain paralyzed in the present.

Fifth, hope cultivates self-belief rather than self-awareness.  Self-belief has to do with what we believe we deserve and what we think should be intrinsically ours. Unlike other countries, Americans have enculturated the term “American Dream” to serve as a belief in the intrinsic rightness of our cause. As author Karen Krett puts it, “to grow up in America today is to be inculcated with the sensibility that we are innately smarter, more able, and somehow fated to be more successful than people who grow up in other countries. The American Dream has become corrupted and recalibrated to measure superficial and valueless excesses or material acquisitions.” Thus, hope is seen through the filter of what we think should be our reality – because we deserve it.

Where self-belief solidifies expectations of the outside world, self-awareness looks inside and seeks “to know thyself.” Self-awareness cultivates our emotional intelligence in which we seek to understand our internal states, preferences, resources and intuitions. Self-awareness keeps one present, so we can see and understand our surroundings more clearly. With self-awareness, we are not focused on the future, rather, we look inward to so we can more accurately understand ourselves in the present.

Why is this important? Because self-awareness (1) helps us to be mindful of ourselves and others, (2) it helps us to have healthy (and realistic!) perspectives on life, (3) we pay closer attention to the feelings and desires that arise in ourselves so that we can notice when we are unbalanced or craving things that are not good for our well-being, and (4) when we look to the future, we don’t see it as what we deserve, rather, we cultivate acceptance and adapt to whatever comes our way.

knlknSelf-Awareness, Acceptance and Optimism

In arguing against hope, it begs the question: what’s the alternative to hope? Hopelessness sounds bad enough to most people. It conjures thoughts of a life of disillusionment and meaninglessness. It’s like the Greek myth of Sisyphus eternally pushing his boulder up a mountain, only to have it fall back down the mountain just before he reaches the summit. How can hopelessness be good?! The good news is that there is a realistic alternative to hope that make happiness and peace more attainable. In doing away with hope, I am advocating for self-awareness, acceptance and optimism. What does this look like?

First, we abandon hope because self-awareness grounds us in the present. Selfawareness is having a clear perception of your personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. When your mind starts dreaming and scheming of an illuminated future world, self-awareness interjects and says, “time-out, what is it that I am needing right now?” “what is it that I am not getting in life right now?” “What is the root cause of my dissatisfaction right now?” “What changes can I make right now for my personal well-being?” This approach brings you to the present moment, and it gets you thinking of what nourishment you need in the present. No future fantasies needed here.

I am willing to argue that every time we begin creating a future hope, peace can actually be found in the present. There’s nothing wrong with looking to the future, but we need to make our investments in the here and now. That being said, we hold the future very lightly, knowing we possess so little control and nothing is guaranteed.

Next, we abandon hope and begin accepting what our present realities are. Repressing, denying and keeping our present sufferings at bay are only temporary solutions that eventually come back to haunt us. So, we ought to cultivate acceptance. Why?

First, acceptance means we can give up never relaxing with where we are or who we are. With acceptance, there no need to get angst about the fictitious ‘you’ you’ve created. Second, acceptance means you can relax in the ambiguity and uncertainty of life. When you accept the fact that everyone’s footing is on marshy soil, you begin cultivating courage in your life. Abandoning hope means that you can integrate the virtue of courage in order to face present misery and chaos with a strong spine. Third, without the illusory life-preserver that hope gives, abandoning hope means you can stand up to suffering and grow from it. Hope often provides an escape option from our present misery because we can dampen the misery with a nugget of hope. This, however, is wishful thinking. Abandoning hope means we can see that there is wisdom and maturation through suffering and disillusionment. Lastly, giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones of the problem, no matter what’s going on.

skcxsxOptimism

Finally, optimism is the lens from which we view life. Even though I embrace hopelessness, what keeps me striving is optimism. While hope describes [unreasonably and irrationally] what the world should be, optimism is merely an attitude. Optimism is a positive attitude that welcomes whatever happiness or misery comes knocking on the door. Optimism says that things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see the silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc. Optimism is much different than hope. Hope is an emotion and optimism is an attitude. Hope is wishful thinking that involves false beliefs, whereas optimism is an attitude that does necessarily involve beliefs. Hope tries to move mountains, and optimism merely brightens the picture.

Final Reflections

Peace resides in cultivating self-awareness so we become comfortable with ourselves. Peace resides in accepting life as it comes. And peace resides in an optimistic outlook that sees the good or a lesson to be learned in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. Hope, on the other hand, is a way to self-medicate ourselves from our present distress.

It was Nikos Kazantzakis who said,

“leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward … Free yourself from the simple complacency of the mind that thinks to put all things in order and hopes to subdue phenomena. Free yourself from the terror of the heart that seeks and hopes to find the essence of things. Conquer the last, the greatest temptation of all: Hope.”

Conquering hope is the first step toward courage. Courage to seek and strive, even if our efforts are in vain. We abandon hope for good outcomes, or understanding, or meaning, but ascend and move forward. We are tempted by hope, but the courageous live without it, carrying on in its absence.

It’s the courageous who live without hope.

~ Wes Fornes

 

By

Why Do People Believe in Gods

Written over two days and finished at Starbucks in Palo Alto. Inspired by recent readings of Andy Thomson, Michael Shermer and a lengthy discussion involving a group of friends. Finished with Bassnector (EDM) blasting in my ears, and a double espresso.

kjblLet’s face it, belief in a god will never go away. A Pew study (2014) found that 89% of Americans believe in a “God or a universal spirit.” Islam is the fastest growing religion and if the current demographic trends continue, the number of Muslims is expected to exceed the number of Christians by the end of this century. Despite the Enlightenment and scientific progress, people keep gravitating to a god or gods. Why is this? Many of us know of very smart individuals – doctors, engineers and scientists – who, despite their quest for empirical truth, nevertheless give their faith to a higher being. But I’m not interested in ‘why do smart people believe?’, rather, ‘why do people believe at all?’

 I consider myself to be a rational person. I value logic and the scientific method. Even though I don’t believe in a higher being, I admit I sometimes feel like there is Something Else. Last week serves as an illustration of several experiences that initiated an urge to cross the line into another realm. First, I voiced to a group of Christians that I had been having difficulty sleeping and they added my insomnia to their prayer requests. Well, wouldn’t you know that the next four nights I had eight hours of sleep each night! Second, last Thursday I had one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong. At one point, I found myself looking up and feeling that Something Else – up in the sky – was trying to send me a message. The ‘message’ was saying: “Wes, slow down and relax.” The last example occurred this past Friday when I was climbing a five-mile hill on my bike. Around 20 minutes into the ride I began feeling very fatigued and was fading fast. But then I rounded a switchback and came across the most spectacular view of San Jose that gave me this feeling of transcendence. Just then, it felt like a hand (or force) began pushing me up the mountain. I spent the next 17 minutes climbing ferociously with a vigor that I have not felt before.

As I look back, I can’t resist asking myself, “was that God intervening in my life?” I am completely open to the transcendence (or God) in my life, but I want to keep reason at the forefront. I could, perhaps, conclude that prayers were answered and that God cured me of insomnia. But was that an answered prayer or a coincidence? It appears that prayers were answered if one simply connects the dots. But what about the billions of prayers that go unanswered where the dots don’t connect? Theists are masters at connecting the dots, such that, God is always in the dots. To the theist, the word “coincidence” is anathema, given that God is always in the details. However, maybe Satan cured me of my insomnia, or Buddha – no one can tell which god is answering prayers. The same holds true of my visceral feeling that there was a force teaching me a lesson during my day of Hell as well as a force giving me energy to conquer a mountain. It’s easy to misjudge a biochemical boost of adrenaline for a euphoric cosmic force that desires for me to get up the mountain. In essence, natural explanations are just not that appealing. It feels like there is Something More. Maybe Satan or nothingness is controlling the strings of the universe. Either way, no one can know or prove it.

The question is still out there: why do people believe in Gods? Here is my argument for why we connect the dots that lead us to a belief in a Gods.

P1 All religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain.

P2 Our brain is an integrated collection of problem solving devices – adaptations – that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.

P3 We have psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in certain environments; medical evidence that prayer, meditation and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health; and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

ConclusionPeople believe in Gods because our brains our belief engines that serve as a useful mechanism for survival. Through evolution, magical thinking has helped humans learn about dangerous and potential lethal environments, as well as reduce anxiety about those environments.

 Going Deeper: Unpacking My Argument

Premises

P1 All religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain.

iuhoiAll religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain. And more than just belief, the brain yields the agony, the ecstasy, the confusion, the disappointment, and every other mental state that makes us human. Each brain harbors memories, creativity, and, maybe, some madness. It is the brain that catches the ball, scores the goal, flirts with strangers, or decides to invade Poland (The Illusion of Self, Bruce Hood). We in fact are our brain! Packed in our lump of tissue we call the brain is an estimated 170 billion cells and 86 o 100 billion neurons – the elements of the microcircuitry that create all of our mental life. The solidarity felt in joining Isis or the felt transcendence of praying hail Mary’s involve sensory neurons that respond to information picked from the environment through one’s senses. Motor neurons relay information that controls our movement outputs. And finally, the interneurons make all the clever stuff happen to the point that one says, “I believe!”. But is there a neurotransmitter for belief?

Of all the chemical transmitter substances sloshing around in your brain, it appears that dopamine may be the most directly related to the neural correlates of belief. Dopamine is a neural transmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center. The release of dopamine is a form of information, a message that tells the organism “Do that again.” Dopamine produces the sensation of pleasure that accompanies mastering a task or accomplishing a goal, which makes the organism want to repeat the behavior, whether it is pressing a bar, pulling a slot machine lever, or praying to Allah five a day. You get a hit (a reinforcement) and your brain get a hits of dopamine. Behavior – Reinforcement – Behavior. Repeat sequence (The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer).

P2 Our brain is an integrated collection of problem solving devices – adaptations – that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.  – Charles Darwin

My second premise rests on five key arguments. (1) The claim that the cognitive mechanisms that are underlying our behavior are adaptations. (2) The idea that they cannot be studied directly, for example, through observation of the brain or our overt behavior, but have to be discovered by means of a method known as “functional analysis,” where one starts with hypotheses about the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors, and then tries to infer the cognitive adaptations that must have evolved to solve them. (3) The claim that these cognitive mechanisms are adaptations not for solving problems prevalent in our modern environment, but for solving recurrent adaptive problems in the evolutionary environment of our ancestors. (4) The idea that our mind is a complex set of such cognitive mechanisms, or domain-specific modules. (5) The claim that these modules define who we are, in the sense that they define our universal human nature and ultimately trump any individual, cultural or societal differences.

Adaptations are traits present today because in the past they helped our ancestors to solve recurrent adaptive problems. The field of evolutionary psychology helps us understand those adaptations that have evolved in response to characteristically human adaptive problems that have shaped our ancestors’ lifestyle as hunter-gatherers during our evolutionary past in the Pleistocene (Ice Age), like choosing and securing a mate, recognizing emotional expressions, acquiring a language, distinguishing kin from non-kin, detecting cheaters or remembering the location of edible plants.

Homo erectus had to overcome a lot in order to go from small bands and tribes of people all the way up to states and empires. Homo erectus left Africa about 1.5-2 million years ago and conquered half the world, process that was essentially finished around 1 million years ago. Because of that, the most challenging part of the environment that drove our own evolution was probably the hominids themselves, and this is the origin of our complex social cognitions (Andy Thomson). This is important because religious ideas are just an extraordinary use of everyday cognitions, such as social cognitions, agency detection and precautionary reasoning. Religious ideas are the by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed originally for other purposes. There are other such by-products, such as reading and writing. We do not have reading/writing modules in our brain. They are a by-product of fine motor skills, vision, and language. Religious ideas are, thus, an artefact of our ability for imagined social worlds.

Through natural selection, human beings adapted social cognitions that primed man for religious belief. These adaptive social cognitions include, but are not limited to:

Theory of Mind (ToM)

While ‘minds’ are not directly observable things, we tend to think a lot about them, forming theories about beliefs, values, motivations, thought processes and so on. When we are interacting with others or thinking about them, we make guesses at what they are thinking and feeling. This is our ‘theory of mind’ about them (sometimes abbreviated to ‘ToM’). We even do the same to ourselves, stepping back and watching ourselves think and feel as we try to work out who we really are. In particular, we predict the intent of others, which helps us decide whether they are a threat or otherwise we should pre-emptively respond to their likely actions.

gIt is precisely the act of intentionality that moves us closer to understanding religious belief. As a preliminary example, everyone has a separate dedicated system that monitors eye gaze. We can make such complex discriminations concerning emotional states through pictures of solely eyes, and discern 212 complicated emotional states. Just from someone’s eye gaze! Ascribing intentionality comes very natural to humans.

Another way to understand ToM is our ability not only to ascribe intentionality, but also ascribe beliefs and desires. We can of it in the different order we think, for instance:

First Order: “I think”

Second Order: “I think, that you think”

Third Order: “I think, that you think, that I think”

Fourth Order: “I think, that you think, that I think, that you think”

This is an example of how deep and complicated we can get when processing emotional states. The ability to assign beliefs, intentions and desires primes us for religious beliefs. Here is an example:

First Order: “I believe”

Second Order: “I believe, that God wants”

Third Order: “I believe, that God wants, us to act with righteous intent”

Fourth Order: “I want you to believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent” (social religion)

Another kind of fourth order: “I want you to know that we both believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent” (communal)

Religions utilize this cognitive adaptation that is crucial to our social interaction. We are only one cognitive step away from ascribing characteristics to a deity. We do these kinds of mental games with inanimate objects all the time: possessions for deceased loved ones, treasured items, and also ascribing human characteristics to deceased loved ones as we imagine them looking down on us desiring actual outcomes for us.

Patternicity

jjjjjReligious people have mastered patternicity to find causal links leading all the way up to God. Patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Patternicity explains why people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news. A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat­ternicity”). In Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe, he argues that our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

According to Shermer, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution. Nevertheless, this helps us understand how the theist can ‘connect the dots to answered prayers, God’s will, and many other examples that have no obvious empirical justification.

(HADD) Hyper-Active Agency Detection Devices

Agenticity is the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. Another term, essentialism, means to infuse essence upon a person or thing. A fascinating study was conducted by Bruce Hood, in which, 24 healthy adults were first asked to rate the faces of 20 people for attractiveness, intelligence, and how willing they would be to receive a heart transplant from each person. After these ratings were recorded, Hood told the subjects that half of the people they had just rated were convicted murderers, then he asked them to re-rate the pictures. Tellingly, although the ratings of the murderers’ attractiveness and intelligence dropped, the biggest drop of all was in the willingness to accept a heart from a murderer, which Hood concluded was due to the fear that some of the essence of evil might be transmitted to the recipient. This study corroborates the study that also reveals that most people would never wear a sweater of a murderer. By contrast, in a form of positive agency, most people would wear the sweater of Mr. Rogers.

It might help if I give some real-world examples of agenticity. Better yet, I’ll combine both patternicity and agenticity to illustrate how they work together. A clear example is when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana. Many Christians and their leaders (e.g. Pat Robertson) drew from both patternicity and agenticity. Here is an example:

Patternicity: There are a lot of homosexuals living in the city where there was just a hurricane; this can’t be a coincidence!
Agenticity: The God that I believe in strongly opposes homosexuality; he may have sent this hurricane to warn us to repent and turn from our wicked ways!

Let’s move on to a much more controversial example; answers to prayer.  Are they real?  Let’s break down the logic again:

Patternicity: I prayed about something that was worrying me last night and my situation improved today (this can’t be a coincidence)!
Agenticity: My God answers prayers, because he loves me!  Prayer works!

First off, the propensity to find patterns goes up when people feel a lack of control.  Christians tend to pray most fervently when they are feeling precisely this way (ie. stressed about something).  This means they’re perfectly primed, ahead of time, to find what they’re already looking for and expecting in faith (plus they count only the hits; ignoring the misses).  And here again there is no way to prove, in any sort of absolute sense, that these two items are not indeed connected (the prayer and the improvement in the situation at hand).

My argument is this: we are natural born supernaturalist, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. One of the leading experts, Stewart Guthrie, argues that people have a bias towards detecting human-like agency in their environment that might not actually exist. Thus, people are particularly sensitive to the presence of intentional agency and seem biased to over attribute intentional action as the cause of a given state of affairs when data is ambiguous or sketchy. These observations suggest that whatever cognitive mechanism people have for detecting agency might be extremely sensitive; in other words, people can be said to possess hyperactive agent detection devices (HADD). According to Guthrie, such a biased perceptual device would have been quite adaptive in our evolutionary past, for the consequences of failing to detect an agent are potentially much graver than mistakenly detecting an agent that is not there.

The idea that religious belief is to a large extent the result of mental adaptations for agency detection has been endorsed by several leading evolutionary theorists of religion (Guthrie 1993; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2005). Broadly, these theorists suggest that there are specialized mental mechanisms for the detection of agency behind significant events. These have evolved because the detection of agency – “who did that and why?” – has been a critical task facing human beings throughout their evolution. These mechanisms are “hyperactive,” leading us to attribute natural events to a hidden agent or agents.

Promiscuous Teleology

According to the theory of ‘promiscuous teleology’, statements such as “clouds are for raining” reflect a deep-rooted belief that natural kinds are intentionally designed for a purpose. While such reasoning is appropriate for certain domains (e.g., artifacts), it is considered promiscuous when extended to natural kinds because it implies “agentive and intentional conceptualizations of Nature” where physical-causal mechanistic explanations would be superior (Waxman, S.R.).

Some of these vulnerabilities are seen most clearly in children, who, from a very early age, are ‘Common sense dualists’. This means that when, for example, you present a box to a five-month-old and make it move like a person, the five-month-old will be startled. He will not be startled when a person behaves the same way. Children come into the world with these systems in place; this is not learned behavior. It is natural, from very early on, to think of disembodied minds. Half of four-year-olds have imaginary friends. Children are causal determinists. This means that they will over-read causality and purpose:

“What are birds for? To sing.”

“What are rivers for? For boats to float on.”

“What are rocks for? For animals, to scratch themselves.”

It is very easy for us to imagine intentional agents that are separate from ourselves. Children will spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention. The mechanisms that we are born with make us very vulnerable to religious ideas. Religion is the path of least resistance. It is cognitively harder and it requires more effort to understand concepts such as natural selection.

Filling In The Gaps: Kanizsa Square

An off-shoot of the promiscuous teleology in children, is intuitive reasoning that adults rely on to fill in the spaces where a void appears. Quite honestly, we will ‘make sense’ when ‘no sense’ appears. An interesting study in 1944 conducted by Fritz Heider and Mary Ann Simmel highlights this thought. Featured in the American Journal of Psychology, they put together a simplistic animated film depicting three moving, black-and-white figures: a large triangle, a small triangle, and a small circle. Participants watched the figures moving about the screen for a while and then were asked to describe what they had just seen. Most reported using a human social narrative – for example, seeing the large triangle as “bullying” the “timid” smaller triangle, both of “whom” were “seeking” the “affections” of the “female” circle. What was once just moving shapes is now infused with anthropomorphic meaning and purpose.

This type of intuitive reasoning is also found with a kanizsa square. In the Kanizsa Triangle Illusion we readily perceive three black circles and two triangles, even though there are technically no circles or triangles in the image. We see something more. We actually perceive objects that are not really there.

kansza square

When we see gaps, we naturally fill them in; even if it requires the supernatural. In the Kanizsa square, we ignore gaps and we complete contour lines to form familiar figures and shapes. Religious belief does this all the time. Consider the gaps between something ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and the question “Why did this happen?” The theist quickly fills the gap with some divine intention from up above. Even if one’s prayers continue to go unanswered, we fill in the gap with, “Well, God knows what is best for me.”

Other adaptive mechanisms and a brief explanation(taken from a talk done by Andy Thomson):

The attachment mechanism

The attachment mechanism in humans was laid out by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. This is the fundamental care taking system in mammals. This is what happens in religion: when someone is in distress, he or she turns to a caretaker, an attachment figure.

Transference

This is a concept discovered by Freud, the fact that we base current relationships on previous ones. This is also hijacked by religion, especially parental transferences.

Childhood credulity

A concept strongly advocated by Richard Dawkins. Natural selection designed our brains to soak up the culture around them. A child cannot tell the difference between good advice, such as ‘don’t swim with alligators’ and bad advice, such as ‘sacrifice a pig for the new harvest’.

Deference to authority

All of us are far more deferential to authority than we like to believe. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments showed that we will, under pressure of some authority, do things that we know on some other level we should not do.

Reciprocal altruism

All of us keep in our heads an account of what we owe to some people, and what we are owed. Religions utilize this: make a sacrifice, receive something in return.
Moral feelings system

All of us have inferential moral systems that come online as early as age 1. It is very hard for us to know the origins of this, and this is what religions hijack by claiming it comes from them. They recruit these systems to lend plausibility to gods, to link commitment and solidarity mechanisms, and to add a morally competent witness to our actions.

This is a useful way to think about the difference between genuine morality and religious morality:

Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what we are told.

Religious dogma is doing what we are told, no matter what is right.

Altruistic punishment

We are willing to punish social cheats at a cost to ourselves. It is crucial to social interaction. Suicide terrorism is just one step further.

Hard to fake, costly honest signals of commitment

We are shown a few examples of this. All religions utilize this. Suicide terrorism is also a hard to fake signal of commitment. This is also connected to religious rituals.

Religious rituals

Religious rituals tap into our threat response system. They are compelling and rigidly scripted, and have usually to do with cleansing and order. Religious rituals enable and elicit scrutiny of hard to fake signals of commitment. They communicate intentions, and they are used to inculcate doctrines and to forge alliances. Rituals are also used to create hope and solace, to excite and entertain.

Religious rituals are also divorced from the original goal of protection; they delimit sacred spaces and the exploit the Gestalt Law of the Whole. In order to illustrate what this means, Andy Thomson shows us a V-formation of flying birds. We tend not to see the birds in these formations, but rather the V-shape itself. Religions exploit this by creating attention arresting and often intimidating spectacles.

muslims praying

There is also motivated reasoning (we doubt what we don’t like), confirmation bias (we notice data that fits our beliefs), and mere familiarity.

Kin psychology

All of us have mechanisms to identify and favour kin. Religions hijack this. Just look at the Catholic Church: priests are brothers, nuns are sisters, and the pope is the Holy Father.

This is only a modest list, and not a complete list of all the cognitive mechanisms that come together to create religious beliefs and ideas and that make us vulnerable to believing them and passing them on.

Although we experience consciousness as a seamless whole, it is really built from very specific parts.

;kjn;P3 We have psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in certain environments; medical evidence that prayer, meditation and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health; and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

Religion capitalizes on superstition and takes it a bit further. The theist finds psychological comfort in a God who listens during desperate times; a God who provides meaning and purpose, and victory over death through an afterlife that claims eternal peace and goodness. Do you see it? For the existential threats in life, we conjure up magical thinking to dampen the dread of life. For many people, not having control over an outcome is a frightening proposition. The more important these uncontrollable situations are, the more likely you’ll try to dream up ways to control their outcome even though it may be unrealistic.

Have you ever wondered why there has been a continual decline in magical thinking from Biblical days to today? The Bible has people raised form the dead, people coming out of their graves and walking around like zombies, miraculous healings, and multiplying food to feed five-thousand people. Fast forward to medieval times where almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, and black magic. If a noble women died, her servants ran around the house emptying all containers of water so her soul would not drown. Her lord, in response to her death, faced east and formed a cross by lying prostrate on the ground, arms outstretched. If the left eye of a corpse did not close properly, the soul would spend extra time in purgatory (leading to the ritual of closing the eyes upon death). Perhaps magical thinking helps us gain control in cases where we feel helpless.

lllnFor the medieval mind, magical-thinking provided an understanding of how the world worked: It attenuated anxiety and allowed people to shed personal responsibility by blaming events on bad luck, evil spirits, mischievous fairies, or God’s will, and permitted one to cast blame on others through curses and witchcraft. Astrology, the most popular science of the day, invoked the alignment of the stars and plants to explain all manner of human and natural phenomena, the past, the present, and future, and life’s vagaries from daily events to yearly cycles. Only religion could rival astrology as an all-embracing explanation for the vicissitudes of life.

By the end of the seventh-teeth century Newton’s mechanical astronomy had replaced astrology; the mathematical understanding of chance and probability displaced luck and fortune; chemistry succeeded alchemy; banking and insurance decreased human misfortune and its attendant anxiety; city planning and social hygiene greatly attenuated the power of plagues; and medicine began its long road toward a germ theory of disease. Cumulatively, these events pushed us into the Age of Science, reducing the number of thinking errors and attenuating the power of superstition. Nevertheless, magical thinking is still with us, rearing its head wherever uncertainties arise.

Wade Boggs was famous for his superstitions, insisting on running his wind sprints at precisely 7:17pm, ending his grounder drill by stepping on the foul line when taking the field but always stepping on it returning to the dugout, and eating chicken before every game. It is worth noting, however, that such superstitions are not all uncommon among hitters where connecting with the baseball is so difficult and so fraught with uncertainties that the very best in the business fail a full seven out every ten times at bat. Fielders by contrast succeed in excess of nine out every ten times a ball is hit to them (the best success better than 95 percent of the time), and they have correspondingly fewer superstitions associated with fielding. But as soon as these same fielders pick up a bat, magical thinking goes into full swing.

One of the key studies in this area was conducted by Bronislaw Malinowski when studying the Trobriand Islanders located in the archipelago of Papua New Guinea. When studying their fishing practices, what Malinowski discovered was that the farther out to sea the islanders went, the more complex the superstitious rituals became. In the calm waters in the inner lagoon, there were very few rituals. By the time they reached the dangerous waters of deep-sea fishing, the Trobrianders were deep into magic. Malinowski discovered that magical thinking derived from environmental conditions, not inherent stupidities: “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.

Conclusion:

meaningPeople believe in Gods because our brains our belief engines that serve as a useful mechanism for survival. Through evolution, magical thinking has helped humans learn about dangerous and potential lethal environments, as well as reduce anxiety about those environments.

 

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Part 2: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence

Eternal Recurrence

What is some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke this? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you

The physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.

While an eternal recurrence is only a thought experiment, it forces the question: Am I content with the life I am living? If not, then we probably would rip and claw ourselves at the thought of repeating it over and over again. Quite honestly, good life or not, most people find zero appealing features to living eternally. It is precisely because we are finite creatures that we live with a sense of urgency and purpose. We see people turn 90 years-old or we experience the death of someone close and we our naturally catapulted to the realization, “that will be me some day!” This thought experiment is truly shock therapy for the soul.

My take away is this: the physicality of death destroys us, but the idea of death saves us. No one denies the reality that body’s age, whither and will terminate in death. Our salvation, however, is found in the idea of death. The idea of death serves a perpetual reminder to make the most of our lives. We hit 30 years-old begin assessing and/or establishing our life goals, career, and marriage. We hit 40 years-old and ask, “Okay, am I established in my career? How is my 401k? What does ‘family’ look like for me?” In our 50s and 60s the process shifts from career-focus to experience-focus, and a deeper reflection for one’s life and legacy. While this is an over-generalization, it illustrates the process of how the idea of death shifts are focus, decade after decade.

On the other hand, if death was not a reality then what impetus would we have for making drastic shifts in our lives? Imagine finding yourself at the same forty-hour a week job for a several thousand years; with the same spouse living in the same location for eternity. Or maybe you’d spend eternity bouncing from job to job, spouse to spouse while jet setting across the world every six months – going from fleeting pleasure to fleeting pleasure ad infinitum. With no end in sight, there is no inner voice saying “carpe diem” because the days never end. Thus, it is because we know of our finality that we have the inevitable mid-life crisis that screams out, “What are you doing?! You gotta find happiness now!”