Your Reality is the Placebo

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My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every (real) experience, (real) belief and (real) worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

Your Reality is the Placebo

Let’s just dive right into my argument … Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

We commonly think of a placebo as pill or injection used to trick people into believing something that isn’t true. Thus, we reduce it to simply a trick. What is often left out of the conversation is that when the patient takes the pill, if they truly believe in the supposed outcome, there can in fact be physiological and psychological changes that move the patient towards the presumed outcome. In other words, the patient creates a reality based on the belief that the pill will work. To minimize it as only a trick or delusion is to ignore the objective evidence that the placebo effect can work. Before moving on, allow me to explain in greater detail just how the placebo works.

The Elements of the Placebo

The placebo effect has three vital elements: conditioning, expectation and meaning. First, if a person keeps taking the same substance, his brain keeps firing the same circuits in the same way – in effect, memorizing what the substance does. The person can easily become conditioned to the effect of a pill or injection from associating it with a familiar internal change from past experience. Because of this kind of conditioning, when the person then takes the placebo, the same hardwired circuits will fire as when they took the drug. As associative memory elicits a subconscious program that makes a connection between the pill or injection and the hormonal change in the body, and then the program automatically signals the body to make the related chemicals found in the drug.

Second, expectation is formed around what we’re conditioned to believe will happen when we take the pill, and what we think that everyone around us (including our doctors) expects will happen when we do, thus affecting how our body responds to the pill.

plplLastly, the process of expectation elevates the meaning of the experience by which you consciously marry your thoughts and intentions with a heightened state of emotions, such as joy or gratitude. Once you embrace that new emotion and you get more excited, you’re bating your body in the neurochemistry that would be present if that future event were actually happening. It could be suggested that you’re giving your body a taste of future experiences. Your brain and body don’t know the difference between having an actual experience in your life and just thinking about the experience – neurochemically, it’s the same. So the brain and body begin to believe they’re actually in the new experience in the present moment. Quite simply, the conscious mind merges with the subconscious mind. Once the placebo patient accepts a thought as reality, and then emotionally believes and trusts in the end result, the next thing that happens is a change in their psychology and physiology.

Beliefs Are Placebos

My contention is that by connecting the placebo effect with the beliefs we hold, we can thus uncover the architecture of belief. We can define belief as trust and confidence in the acceptance that a statement or concept is true or exists. While belief consists of many trivial things (i.e. I’m typing on a laptop right now, and, I believe I am wearing a gray shirt, etc.), for the sake of brevity I will focus on the concepts that deal with life’s deepest existential questions such as: why should I not kill myself, and what is my highest aim on this planet? To answer these questions requires some kind of a belief-system that offers explanations or guidance.

gtgtgThe beliefs we hold, concerning one’s existential condition in the universe, follows the pattern of the placebo effect just mentioned: conditioning, expectation and meaning. The two examples I will simultaneously use to demonstrate this claim will be identified as (1) and (2), and explained as such:

(1) the religious belief of the justice of God provides hope in the midst of suffering

(2) the secular belief/goal in the pursuit of human flourishing provides gratitude in working together for a common good.

Both (1) and (2) conditions the person to the experiential effects in holding (1) and (2). The effects are varied but not limited to:

-Feeling of security in having a “why” deep life’s deepest concerns

-Feeling of hope and purpose with life

-Feeling of intentionality with life

-Positive feeling in having a plan/perspective to life’s challenges

It’s important to note that these feelings impact the neurochemistry of its adherents with hormonal changes that effect one’s physiology. As evidence of this claim, simply think of the emotions that rise when you think about how someone you care deeply for went out of their way to help you when you needed it most. The pleasant hit of dopamine in your brain is much different from the stress hormones of cortisol released when your flight/fight reflexes kick in. In essence, you get conditioned to accept that this is, well, good! The conditioning is further solidified in the environment when you surround yourself in a community of other fellow adherents, thus reinforcing that this belief is worthy of pursuing.

The expectation of (1) and (2) is grounded in the mental rehearsal in past experiences that creates the future reality that you will indeed receive the same dose of joy, security, hope, etc. Now (1) and (2) gain anticipatory feelings that look like, for example, (A) resting in God’s love will give me peace, and (B) a deep concern for the well-being of others will bring me happiness. Thus, expectation in now grounded in one’s psyche. The end result is that the conditioning and expectation gives the belief meaning. Now, the belief is concretized and justified as a noble pursuit.

kkmkmJust as the patient gives power to the external agent (the pill), you and I give power to beliefs. The power we give to the pill or belief will mold our reality. This is crucial when it comes to worldviews that we adopt to help guide us through life’s most perplexing existential questions. For example, hope and gratitude, at an existential stratum, are two psychological pillars of emotionality that – at a fundamental level – keep one from killing oneself. Hope gives the good, bad and the ugly a positive, optimistic or guiding context. Gratitude gives us the attitude and disposition for all of the good, bad and ugly.

Moreover, the psychological benefits of hope and gratitude prove to be the placebo that dampens the dread of death and tragedy, so much so, that religious people call it by another name: the justice of God. The justice of God is a conceptual placebo packed with propositions that has morphed throughout history to give man a “why?” to the most difficult questions. Therefore, the justice of God helps the religious person psychologically posture themselves before, during and after tragedy strikes, with the presupposition that whatever happens – no matter how bad – is part of God’s perfect and good plan.

Even secular man tackles the “why?” with other placebos that are, like the justice of God, rooted in hope and gratitude that are purely conceptual. For example, hope in leaving behind an altruistic legacy and hope in the progress of compassion and love. All of this with an attitude of gratitude that civilization has astonishingly blossomed from hominoids all the way to vast democracies where people cooperate and flourish. Herein lies the placebo of hope and gratitude, that function as the scaffolding and architecture of the reality we create. This is what gives belief power and meaning to life’s deepest existential questions.

In closing….

Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

A deeper point I wish to glean from my premises is that your reality is the placebo. Your reality is the placebo that shapes your attitudes and beliefs, thus altering your neural and physiological chemistry. The goal, however, is to realize that the placebo is not in the external pill, but in what your mind produces.

Just like a patient given a placebo pill who places their power in the external object (the pill) to bring about change, there is an internal placebo (e.g. beliefs/reality) that we give power to, that brings epigenetic changes. The internal placebo is the power we give to beliefs through conditioning, expectations and meaning. The power we give to beliefs change our physiological and psychological disposition.

 

My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every experience, belief and worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

gvgv

**Possible Rebuttals**

My essay is done, but…..

It’s here that I can imagine someone quoting some positive psychology of “The Secret” that basically says: dream it and it will come true. Again, my argument is not centered on dreaming up your reality, or, faking it till you make it. Rather, it’s recognizing that our lives function as a story, and we are the lead actor in our life-long drama. And the way that we interpret our life depends on the beliefs and worldviews we hold dear. We alone are the one’s who give power to those beliefs and worldviews, just like the patient who gives power to the placebo pill. Moreover, the beauty of the placebo reality is that it can really change our psyche and physiology, thus improving our well-being.

I can also hear the secular person saying, “but at least my naturalistic worldview is more real than the religionist worldview.” By this, I presume he is meaning that the naturalistic worldview is more ‘objectively real’ than most (or all) religions. This, however, is a reductionistic argument on the part of the secular person, for it presumes that what is real is that which can only be objectively demonstrated. My claim is that reality has innumerable layers that lay subterranean beneath that which can be only falsifiable or testable.

For instance, we can say that the numbers 9 and 11 are objectively real – timeless symbols that are part of a mathematical system. However, they are so much more than that. One layer deeper, and we form a calendar whereby 9 stands for September and 11 stands for the days in September. A layer deeper than that triggers emotions of sadness, for it symbolizes tragic loss. Moreover, a layer under that is a shift in perception of “ground zero” in New York, and terrorism in general, since it hit so close to home. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s birthday is on September 11, so for her, her reality of those numbers are not all sad. My point is that “reality” is a multi-varied metaphor that is not necessarily objective, rather, it is subjectively experienced.

 

How Are Values Formed?

Written over the course of two days, and finished in Starbucks in San Jose, CA with electronic dance music pounding in my head, and a grande blonde roast that tastes horrible because I’ve given up sugar. Enjoy the essay!

values

Values

When I look back at my belief system while growing up in Dallas, Texas (1976-2001), they are much different than my current belief system that’s been enculturated in liberal Silicon Valley (2013-2019). I remember being taught and believing that inter-racial marriage was wrong, that being gay was immoral, and that any type of governmental distribution of wealth was wrong because hand-outs to those in need simply incentivized laziness. I distinctly remember as a junior in college, cutting and gluing a picture of a grotesque dead fetus to a sign that would later be used at a nearby pro-life rally. When I look back, I can’t believe the contrast in values from then to now. Currently, my more liberal values are a vast contrast to the prior ‘me’.

How did the ‘me’ of 2001 have such contrasting values than the ‘me’ of 2019? Was ‘southern me’ just a red-neck with antiquated values; while the ‘Silicon Valley me’ is enlightened?

When I contemplate my contrasting selves, I can’t help but want to explore the question: how do we form our values? Are values given from the heavens (i.e. God), are the genetic, or are the dynamic and happen as we simply experience life. This begs a follow-up question: are values absolute or cultural?

I truly believe that values are formed based on our life experiences. With that, I do believe they are also bound by culture. I don’t, however, believe that values come from the heavens, rather, I believe that values are imposed on us as children from early on while forming the basis and justification of our morality and ethics. Values such as care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, sanctity/degradation, authority/subversion, and liberty/oppression are ingrained in us from early on, and while they are malleable, they inform our ethics and politics. Moreover, I believe that all values are ingrained with intentions to promote ‘the good’, however, because values are culture bound, what’s good for one culture may be (and often is) deemed an abomination by another. Herein lies the ultimate irresolvable dilemma.

cooperation

How are Values Formed?

Value formation is the confluence of our personal experiences and particular culture we are entwined in. Values are imposed from our family in childhood and reinforced through culture and life experiences. The value of, for example, kindness was imposed on me from my parents, and reinforced throughout early childhood. Then I applied that value on the school playground and experienced how it helped me create greater social bonds with my school mates. My personal experiences growing up reinforced the value of kindness as I experienced the adaptive effects of showing kindness and the maladaptive effects when choosing malice over kindness. All through my upbringing, both my personal experiences and cultural surroundings both reinforced the value of kindness.

Having been born and raised in Dallas, Texas, the values of rugged individualism, church, and God was ingrained in my psyche from birth. Each of those three values, as I grew older, eventually formed the foundation of my worldview and politics. In a sense, our values, imposed upon us early in childhood, become the spectacles in which we view and judge the world.

Our culture plays a huge role in our value formation. Culture gives us a community and shared reality so that we can cooperate in activities and customs that give meaning, purpose, and significance to our existence. Culture gives us prescriptions for appropriate conduct so that we can learn best how to get along with others. All you have to do is travel to another country to see how values ebb and flow with culture. You can travel to China and see how they elevate the group and family over the individual in contrast to most Americans; you can see how South Americans elevate hospitality and care for their elderly unlike most Americans; and how Hawaiians elevate relaxation and balance unlike most urban metropolitan cities in the U.S. (I am obviously speaking in general terms rather than absolutely)

redneck

If you live in the hills of West Virginia and coal mining is your life, and it’s what feeds your family, then you are less likely to support environmental policy that does away with coal mining. If, like I was, you are brought up with the value that every life is sacred, then pro-life values become your spectacles in which you view the the sanctity of a fetus. Likewise, if you lived in Ohio through the 1990’s and you witnessed jobs supplanted overseas, then the Republican platform doesn’t look so bad. But if your personal experiences were lived in, say, San Francisco, California, then it will contrast greatly with West Virginians as liberal values of tolerance, preserving the earth, and multi-culturalism is elevated to supreme importance.

It’s not that West Virginian’s, pro-lifers, and Ohioan’s are dumb or ‘deplorable’, they simply elevate certain values over others. Keep in mind, with the examples I provided, each value is seen as a noble virtue. Sanctity of life, even for an unborn fetus, is based on the pursuit of establishing what is noble and virtuous.  Coal miners and Ohioans value loyalty to one’s country, which involve the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Let’s be honest, I think most of us want our government to be loyal to hard working Americans, rather than betray us in order to profit from setting up jobs abroad.

My greater point is this: whether it’s West Virginia or San Francisco, these are virtuous goals that have their aim at virtuous ends. By and large, children in Red States are raised by parents who impose on them values that seek the good. I should know, I am a product of Texas and a stereotypical Texan ideology. Where things get muddy is when you have competing values that compete for supremacy. I mean, if all values seek the good, can we say that some are wrong?

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Right/Wrong or Better/Worse

When judging values, we should not speak in terms of right or wrong, rather we should look at competing values in terms of better and worse. When talking about values, thinking in terms of right and wrong will result in completely invalidating the other side of the discussion.

Your values are your baby, so to speak. You hold them dear, because they speak to your life experiences and cultural upbringing. When someone says that your values are wrong, the conversation is off to a bad start from the beginning. Invalidating someone’s values shifts the conversation to a defensive mode. Instead, you can validate someone’s values, and then become ‘Socratic’ by asking questions back-and-forth as you hash out which values actually advance progress, human rights, justice, etc. Common ground is good foundation to have, and this begins by understanding that the other side is truly trying to come from a place of virtue.

When talking about values, thinking in terms of better and worse will recognize the virtuous aims of both sides, while also recognizing that some values ought to be elevated over others. Moreover, better or worse dialogue frames the dialogue in a way that doesn’t get personal, rather, you can simply discuss the effects of values in the public sphere.  Given that values are noble and based on virtue, it’s their externalities that need to be discussed. By externalities, I mean the side effects, blow-back, and consequences of the value when it is fully cashed out in everyday life. For example, early missionaries would visit foreign tribes and not only try and convert them, but also provide food and supplies to help them flourish. From this standpoint, the missionaries can be seen as virtuous. But some missionaries also brought over (unintentionally) diseases that devastated the villages. Thus, we can assess the externalities or consequences and conclude that this was probably not the best idea given the negative side effects it brought upon innocent villagers. It’s not that the missionaries immoral, per se, it’s just that there are better ways to advance the value of generosity and compassion.

In addition to a better or worse thinking rather a right or wrong way, there is another clarifying point I’d like to make. There is a common tendency to confuse value judgements with moralistic judgements. Value judgements reflect our beliefs of how best life can be served. We make moralistic judgements of people and behaviors that fail to support our values judgments; for example, “Anyone who votes for Trump is off their rocker.” In this example, the claim is trying to classify and judge a huge swath of people on moralistic grounds, with a tacit jab that labels Trumpians crazy. This tactic is similar to the one used by Ronald Reagan when calling the U.S.S.R.  an “evil empire.” The Germans also resorted to this by classifying the Jews with negative connotations like “cockroaches.”. Going back to the Trump claim, a more compassionate and enlightened way to articulate this sentiment would be, “I am worried about many of Trump’s policies; I value policies that unite the country and help the poor economically.” Now, this is a value judgment that doesn’t classify or analyze on moral grounds every single Trump voter, rather, it gives voice to your values and needs.

Final Words

Values reflect what we find important to make life better. The formation of our values is cultivated and refined based on our life experiences and influenced by our cultural surroundings. When I was in Texas preparing myself for a pro-life rally in 2001, my actions were guided by values rooted in virtue. Granted, my values were much different than most people in blue states. However, my values later changed due to personal experiences with liberal thinkers who lived out a value system that spoke to my heart. Moreover, I was able to live in the U.K. where I was exposed to different values and thinking that called into question my worldview. What didn’t change me was an intellectual argument or some liberal calling me a ‘southern redneck’. What didn’t change me was someone telling me I’m wrong, or that I needed to be more educated. Rather, it was through compassionate discussions where we worked through, not right and wrong, but the question: what makes life better?

Who’s to say what my values will be in 2030? Or what they will be if I move to Mississippi? All I know now is that I am guided by a value system that is surrounded by a plethora of other value systems. My value system is not the “right one,” rather, it simply speaks life into how I live and make my decisions. And when I hear competing values shouted by a person from a different culture than mine, I hope to take a deep breath, realize that he/she is simply expressing a deep need they have, and then perhaps I can share my values and needs without fostering judgement, evaluations of their character, or moralistic analysis. In the end, compassionate dialogue changes lives, not right/wrong judgement.

 

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!

bb

 

 

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 times 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 artifact 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.

 

Ultimate Meaning and the Danger of William Lane Craig

“If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.”  – – William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig and His Claim of Ultimate Meaning

craigI wish to address a very disturbing essay that provides the Christian community with a dangerous arsenal for understanding purpose in life. I say it’s dangerous because it casts anything ‘non-Christian’ in a very damming light. In essence, William Craig’s essay entitled The Absurdity of Life Without God claims that ultimate values, ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose is impossible without immortality and God. Craig’s followers capitalize on these ‘ultimate’ claims by using it as a vehicle to get people to join the faith and show that those who do not believe are doomed to a life without real meaning. I will demonstrate in this essay how William Craig fails to provide sufficient reasons for ultimate meaning and how his argument leads to the polarization of large swaths of people.

As an humanist chaplain, William Craig’s claim strikes at my core. My career is spent in helping people understand meaning and purpose while in the midst of profound crisis in their life. Therefore, I cannot help but seek to understand the implications and rationale for Craig’s claims. Furthermore, I spent ten years in pastoral leadership in Christian churches so, according to Craig, I once had ultimate meaning but now I am doomed. That’s right, Craig states in his essay that “If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, they await their unavoidable execution.” By stoking the fears of existential distress, Craig constructs a simple argument in an effort to show how his ideology is supreme.

betterThe superiority complex and vitriol it engenders is quite distressing. His claim that only theists can have ultimate values, meaning, and purposes is polarizing. It unjustly elevates Christian ideals over all other altruistic non-Christian ideals. This means that a Christian who joyfully gives her life to serving the poor is experiencing ultimate meaning but a non-Christian who joyfully does the same is engaging in a meaningless and valueless endeavor. It follows, then, that purpose and meaning is easily minimized with non-Christians. It’s appalling when you take Craig’s thesis to its limits and you are compelled to acknowledge that all noble acts done by non-Christians are absolutely futile. Not only does it elevate Christian ideals over everyone else, but it emboldens Christians to view themselves on a higher moral plain. How could it not? When I was a Christian, I felt morally superior to others, as if I was on the winning team. And in my Christian communities, I saw and experienced the moral superiority all the time. It’s inevitable, but it’s also wrong and dangerous.

For the sake of brevity, I will focus on Craig’s notion of ultimate purpose rather than ultimate values; even though my logic runs consistently through purpose, meaning and values. The crux of Craig’s argument is this: we can have ultimate purpose and meaning because God is the ultimate being; and because his essence is good and just, then his purpose is ultimately best. Thus Craig concludes: if there is no God, then life itself is meaningless. I want to note here an extremely important observation in Craig’s essay: Craig does not simply claim that the non-Christian lives without “ultimate” meaning and purpose, but the non-Christian’s life is all-together meaningless and purposeless. In other words, the compassion and altruism that dominates the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dali Lama which leaves an indelible and profound impact on the world was an ultimate waste of time.

The Word “Ultimate” as a Great Marketing Strategy

It is important that I acknowledge that Craig’s use of “ultimate” is his own marketing strategy. As a pillar of the theist camp, he has put out a product that has selling power. In marketing 101, when advertisements put “ultimate” in its verbiage, it sends a message that says, “The verdict is out and final! This deodorant is it! Interestingly enough, Craig uses “ultimate” sixteen times in his essay and never defines it. This complicates things because the dictionary defines “ultimate” as “final” or “last”, but that doesn’t seem to be Craig’s point. Judging by his argument I can only surmise that he means “unending”. Notice his words, “our lives can have ultimate significance only if they never end.” It seems that Craig uses “ultimate” to fit his wishes for an attempt at a successful conclusion. I got to hand it to Craig, his selling pitch catches your attention just like my favorite Old Spice commercials

wdwdThe Logic of Craig’s Claim

Notice Craig’s logic when he states, “we can have ultimate purpose and meaning because God is the ultimate being.” This is a logical fallacy of petitio principia (begging the question). In other words: claim X assumes X is true; therefore, claim X is true. William Craig is infamous for framing Christian arguments where the conclusion is assumed in one the premises. It’s similar to me saying, “Paranormal activity is real because I have experienced what can only be described as paranormal activity.” From the very beginning, his logic is fallacious. How can we know God is ultimate? Sure we can argue by definition and say, well, God is ultimate because God is ultimate. But this circular reasoning gets us nowhere. Perhaps because the Bible tells us so? The Bible tells us a lot of things, just as the Koran, Vedic texts, Hadith, and Buddhist Sutras do. Ancient writings shed light on how people at that time and in that place understood the world; it is not, however, a gateway to truth. I ask again, how can we know God is ultimate? We cannot. In order to buttress his presupposition, Craig is forced to insert in his premise a claim (that God is ultimate) which has no justificatory epistemic content.

Duration as a Measure of Significance

Craig’s argument hinges on duration and immortality. After all, if there is no everlasting afterlife then everything is pointless. Craig never defends his claim that nothing temporary has significance or its implication that all temporary things are equally insignificant. He only repeats it, many times, as if it should be obvious. But is it true that nothing temporary has significance? Does this mean, for example, watching the birth of your child is meaningless because it has a finite time? Would it have more significance if it never ended? Craig creates a false dilemma by leading you to believe that that anything that goes on for infinity is the only ultimate way to experience meaning. I believe we need a better measure of significance that duration of time.

It is illogical that Craig creates an interdependency between immortality and meaning. If our solar system, is to be ultimately incinerated, we would still be concerned about meaning. What if experiences do pass into memory and then ultimately fade? What relevance does that have for meaning? That happens to the nature of experiences. How could it be otherwise? Experiences are temporal, and one cannot exist outside of time. When they are over, they are over, and nothing can be done about it. We are dealing here with value judgments, not with statements of fact. It is by no means an objective truth that nothing is important unless it goes on forever or eventually leads to something else that persists forever.

Meaning ought to be desirable on its own account; not because finality is imminent. If not ends were complete unto themselves, if everything had to be justified by something else outside of itself which must in turn also be justified, then there is infinitum regress: the chain of justification can never end. Certainly there are ends that are complete unto themselves without requiring and endless series of justifications outside ourselves.

lifesThe Impossibility of Ultimate Purpose

Craig’s argument simply doesn’t work. For any purpose we begin to understand, we can step back from and question. We have numerous theistic religions that offer God’s purpose for our lives that include (1) glorifying God and enjoying him forever and (2) having a relationship with God. Surely we can ask, “What’s so great about that?” What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the questions “Why is this ultimately worthwhile?” I am not trying to be difficult or ask a flippant question like “Why is here here?” In fact, Craig and any theist would surely question any life purpose that an Atheists proffers – and rightly so.

Suppose I said that our purpose on earth is to give 80% of all our income to those who earn less than $20,000 a year. I can easily make an argument that frames this purpose as a virtuous and noble act which leads to positive ramifications. Moreover, this purpose may even embolden my life with an all-consuming passion for goodness. However, you would be right in scrutinizing this purpose by asking “Why is that ultimately worthwhile?” Nor would I expect you to be content with the promise that someday you’ll see that purpose counting as ultimately satisfying. Such a promise merely appeals to mystery.

That Craig takes liberty to slap on “ultimate” in front of “meaning” does not nothing to revolutionize how humans confer meaning on experiences. The same is true for God being an “ultimate being” who is the arbiter of “ultimate good”. Just as an Imam at your local mosque may feel inclined to put ‘ultimate’ in front of Allah doesn’t substantiate anything by doing so. Atheists do indeed lead lives that lack ultimate significance; and so do theists. While lives of ultimate meaning are impossible, meaningful lives are not.

meaningfulWhy it’s Wrong

Secular morals and values have been denigrated and mischaracterized for millennia. But in the 20th century, Christian apologists capitalized on the notion that secularism has no basis for doing good. Like Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, “Without God, all is permissible.” This dangerous and unjustified meme has metastasized, such that, in recent studies rapists are described as more “trustworthy” than Atheists (see Azim Shariff’s study noted in USA Today). This type of false characterization has prompted Christian leaders to monopolize the entire panoply of morals to the point that even Presidential elections become a platform for Christian morals to show off their illegitimate superiority.

But the facts show differently, as atheistic Scandinavian countries continue to flourish, secular organizations lead the charge during disaster reliefs, and secular activists in America continue to fight for virtues such as women’s rights, economic equality, and rights of minorities. You may ask, “on what basis does the secular person fight for virtues?” Such a question is absolute nonsense. We use our senses to see and experience the positive impact when engaging in compassion, empathy and cooperation. We know what it’s like to see society thrive. Just as I thrive when my environment is taking care of my basic well-being, so do societies that share in the moral ethic of reducing needless pain by increasing the well-being of the whole society. The basis is not “out there” in the heavens; it’s all around us when consider the values, policies, and legislation that maximizes flourishing in the world.

William Craig, however, ignores the meaningful experiences that secular people possess and advocate for. Instead, he stages the game by inserting “ultimate” as if to say “game over, the final verdict is out.” Perhaps I would agree with Craig if, say, all non-Christians walked around depressed with suicide notes in hand. I mean, if absolute despair encompassed the psyche of every non-Christian to the point that they brought nothing of value or nobility to this planet, then, we could conclude: “Hey, maybe Craig’s got a point.” But this simply is not that case, in fact, far from it. Christians have just as much, if not more people with depressive disorders, high divorce rates and violent crime. But more importantly, both Christians and non-Christians have the benefit of living extremely meaningful lives that find peace, engage in loving relationships with their partners, and abstain from crime because they are in a society that is concerned about their well-being. The ideology that William Craig espouses unjustifiably segregates society while moving us farther away from moral progress.

meaningCraig’s ideology is the type of irrational thinking that weaponizes culture with an us vs. them mentality. It is an argument that simply does not hold up. It’s polarizing and only widens the divide that separates religious and secular citizens from having a rational dialogue about morals and values that impact our country. When you possess the dangerous belief that says a secular person has no basis for doing good, it easily follows that they also have no meaning in life. To the contrary, the secular person the same opportunity to love, flourish and thrive within a meaningful life. Craig is wrong, no one has privileged access to some kind of ultimate meaning.

~ Wes Fornes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith vs. Knowledge

Written at Big Bear Café in Los Gatos with a café Americano at my side and no music because my bluetooth earbuds have no battery left.

faSeveral months ago was with friends of mine discussing faith and belief. At one point in the conversation I thought I was stating the obvious by drawing a distinction between faith and knowledge. I made the benign claim that faith is not knowing, if it was a type of knowing, then it wouldn’t be faith. Several Christians in the group quickly became defensive and the thought of their faith being distinct of knowledge. After the discussion, I reflected on how common and often Christians lay claim to linking faith and knowledge as synonymous.

Is there a difference between faith and knowledge? I believe there is a huge difference between the two. People of the Christian worldview, especially, are notorious for linking faith and knowledge. Perhaps the Christians insistence in linking faith and knowledge is because there is a visceral fear that faith without knowledge [or knowing] minimizes and waters down Christianity. This insidious fear, in this current age of reason, is what prompts the Christian to [try] and have their cake while eating it to.

So what is the difference? knKnowledge is the process building beliefs out of concepts and propositions that brings us to a place of knowing – conceptually – with our mind. Faith is confidence in something or something, a non-knowing process of trust; it is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing himself or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose. Faith is rooted in deeply meaningful abstract values and knowledge is rooted in concrete propositions.

Often times I am caught in the dilemma of sitting in Starbucks with all of my stuff laid out while having the strong need to go to the bathroom. So I try and find the most unassuming person close to me and ask, “Excuse me, do you mind watching my stuff while I go to the bathroom?” I have done this around, say, 75 times, and never have my belongings been stolen. When I walk away to the bathroom, I don’t know my laptop and Nook will be alright. I do, however, have faith (or confidence) that the person watching my stuff has my best interest in mind. The same holds true when flying. When I board a plane for Dallas, I have faith that it will arrive at DFW Airport, but I do not know that it will land safely.

If that’s faith, then what do I know? Well, I know that kicking puppies is wrong, that the earth is round, and that I have a brain. Claiming I have faith that I have a brain seems a bit strange. And if I want to maintain any semblance of intellectual honesty about the earth’s shape, I might restate my claim by saying: I know the earth is round based on the evidence presented to me, but I am open to changing my belief if future evidence proves otherwise. jyvgoybThe distinction between faith and knowledge is important because when knowing morphs into knowing absolutely, then we better hope that it doesn’t metastasize into an ideology. I do not worry that my supreme confidence that rape is wrong or that I have a brain will be polarizing will lead to sectarian violence. But when ideology is fueled with absolute knowing, then the whole world better watch out. Ideology is a system of ideas that informs the way we look at the world, values, and meaning. It is at this juncture that the distinction between faith and knowledge reaches the breaking point. It is one thing to say “I know I have a brain” and another to say that “I know God will cast to Hell those that do not worship Him” or “I know that everything in the Bible/Koran is true.” Ideology is just that: ideas. Ideas are best guided by faith rather than knowledge. Church officials refuse homosexuals the right to preach behind the pulpit because of something more than faith. Christians believe that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life because of something larger than a mustard seed of faith. It is a knowing. If it was an open-minded faith that engulfs the heart of Christianity then its history would not be plagued with wars, oppression and killings.

Even in the last 100 years, Christianity has been either lagging or hostile in the charge of giving compassion and rights to women, minorities, and homosexuals. The reason is because their boots are cemented in the knowledge of their inerrant sacred text which was written by their infallible God stating His objectives unequivocally. Thus, the history of Christianity has been a history of back-peddling and apologizing for past grievances because … they thought they knew but realized they didn’t. Confidence and faith, however, leave room for dialogue and open-minded reflection that things may not be what they appear.

I would love for religious people to have more intellectual integrity and leave room for more compassion and peace. I have always found it odd that Christians speak so objectively and concretely about a deity that is effable and incomprehensible. It takes a heavy dose of humility and honest reason to say: “I don’t know if what I believe about God is absolutely true.” Making this claim does not mean that the values and virtues of Jesus ought to be discarded as rubbish. It simply means that you choosing to elevate your mind above a totalitarian regime of dogma and doctrine that imposes its demands upon your reason. For this is where knowledge, functioning as absolute knowledge, wields is grotesque head and moves people in masses to become subservient slaves to bronzed aged ethics from stories told in peasant villages in Ancient Palestine. I say, “No thank you.”

ggI will place my faith in my ability to promote goodness and stand up to injustices when I can. My faith is my ability to see the virtues and value in humanity and all that is around me. My faith is in my upbringing and my past experiences that help me understand that living an ethical life takes continuous self-reflection and examination. And while I will always be a work in progress with many struggles, I have faith that if I keep striving to live a meaningful and compassionate life, peace will continue to flourish within me. This is where my loyalty dwells and where my faith remains.

~Wes Fornes 🙂

In 350 Words: A Warning About Believing in an Afterlife

Drinking a mocha and wanted to share some thoughts in my head. A belief in the afterlife cultivates the idea that this life is temporary and what matters most is the next life. Unlike this life, the afterlife is a man-made narrative that is not found in reality. Let’s face it, no one has ever been to heaven and then reported their findings when they arrived back on earth. Heaven is not like the South Pole. I have never been to the South Pole, but it is a part of my reality because (1) I have seen pictures, (2) many people have been there and reported on agreeing views of the South Pole, and (3) there is consensus among rational people that the South Pole in fact exists. Thus, the South Pole is not on the same plane as a heaven or a reincarnated life.

So what’s the danger? If we are consistently focused on securing eternal bliss in the next world, and the next world is cloudy myth, then that leaves us nowhere. It goes like this:

  • I cannot be fully present on earth because I am focused on my (post-death) eternal destiny.
  • I cannot be fully present in the afterlife because it is unknowable.
  • Therefore, I am not fully present anywhere.

What I am proposing is that we focus on the here and now. That we stay present with what is happening at this minute. May we be encouraged that every breath is a gift and should be used wisely. That every interaction with the people in our lives is precious and should be held in the highest regard. May we create a life in our present existence where greed and hatred are extinguished and empathy and compassion is cultivated. And let us do this because we want to live to the fullest. Let us not pursue virtue with the goal of future mansions in heaven, or future virgins that await us, or because we fear coming back in a 2nd life as a rat. What matters is today, so live it to the fullest.

A common rebuttal is: well if an afterlife doesn’t exist, then where is my hope? Maybe your hope should be in how you live out your life in this world. A hope that says, “I hope to leave the world a better place than when I first arrived.” A hope that says, “My life matters, and I am making the most of it.” As a person who does not believe in an afterlife, I have a tremendous amount of hope. My hope is that I will always be able to say, “I did my best to treasure the people in my life, to cultivate compassion in my life, and to stop and smell the roses.”

Written @ Starbucks in Los Gatos CA on 1/10/2015