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.

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**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.

 

Subverting Rationality (Part 2)

“The only thing(s) real is that which is meaningful”

The Limitations of Objective Rationalism

Objective rationalism is a way of knowing and reasoning using empirical methods to deal with reality as opposed to subjective means. Objective rationalism has its basis in striving for impartiality devoid of bias and prejudice. It identifies knowledge as coming from outside sense data as opposed to internal structures that we use to interpret the outside world. It is a useful tool when, for example, a detective is trying to solve a difficult homicide case or when research is conducted to cure a deadly disease. In these examples, biasness and personal (subjective) opinion can skew the results.

 My argument states that objective rationalism is (1) limited, (2) is not how we construct our world, and (3) collapses on itself. Because of the myopic nature of objective rationalism, my contention is that ways of knowing and reasoning reality can be accomplished through pursuing that which is meaningful. In other words: that which is most real is that which is most meaningful.

 Objective rationalism is a limited way of perceiving the world because it dismisses the meaning of experiences; it tells us only ‘what is’ and not ‘why it matters’. When we analyze something or someone from an objective viewpoint, we focus strictly on the sense data (touch, taste, feel, sight, smell) and that which is falsifiable. It’s this method that speaks to the ‘is-ness’ of the situation, and that’s about it. In many situations this is useful, and in fact needed, for instance, when a medical examiner is conducting an autopsy and brut facts is paramount.

Objectivity, however, is limited in that it cannot tell us why it matters. The medical examiner can determine how the person died, but not why their life mattered. This is excruciatingly important given human beings are meaning-making creatures who are driven and motivated by that which is purposeful and significant. Our lives are narratives of meaningful and significant events linked together to form our personal life story.

Imagine how difficult it would be to recount your personal autobiography through only objective lenses? In other words, in recounting your past, you stripped away any subjective assessments and only articulated that which was demonstrably real. Not only would this be an impossible task as you focus solely on the ‘is-ness’ of everything in your past, but it is also a sterile account that would put most listeners to sleep. This is simply not how we live life. When we recount our past or construct an idealized future, we do it with meaning as our guide.

Because objectivity is so limited, we can make the argument that that which is most real is most meaningful. First, each of us creates a narrative (a story) of our ‘self’ and that narrative is constructed against the backdrop of meaningful and significant events. Each of us sees our life as a play, as Shakespeare articulated, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” We can’t help but view ourselves as the lead actor in our play, and more importantly, our script and plot strive to illuminate meaning. If you are skeptical of this point, simply think about this question: how would you like your life to be in ten years? I guarantee the way you answer that question will focus on that which is meaningful to you.

Second, meaning is what moves us forward to an idealized future. I touched upon this in my first point, so I won’t belabor this thought. So, here is another question to ask yourself: Why didn’t you commit suicide this morning? Once again, I can guarantee that your answer to that question will center on reasons that focus on meaning, purpose, and significance.

Third, our brains are wired to interpret the meaningful as real. Simply put, our brains are wired to react to things that have meaning before they construct the perceptions that you think of as objects. The reason for this is that the meaning of things is more real, in some sense, and more important than the viewing of things as objects. When you approach a cliff, you don’t see a cliff, you see a falling off place. It isn’t that it is an object ‘cliff’ to which you attribute the meaning of the ‘falling off place’ to. The ‘falling off place’ comes first, and the abstraction of the object ‘cliff’, if it happens at all, comes much later. Much later conceptually as well, given that babies can detect cliffs without knowing the concept of ‘cliff’.

All this to say: that which is most real is most meaningful. We instinctively construct our world through meaning – having done so for millennia – which is why our brain has predispositioned us to react to meaningful experiences before we have the chance to begin the process of objectively rationalization.

 Objective rationalism is not how we construct our world

 Knowledge does not begin in the ‘I’, and it does not begin in the object; it begins in the interactions. There is a reciprocal and simultaneous construction of the subject on the one hand, and the object on the other. We are not simply surrounded by things made of matter (objectively speaking), the things around us literally matter (subjectively speaking).

Our world is constructed through our daily experiences that unfold our perceptions; a type of perpetual un-concealing. Through this unfolding and un-concealing, we have interactions – some positive, some negative – that results in dis-covering the world around us. For example, the object ‘dog’ can be revealed to one person as a ‘friendly loveable canine’ and to another as ‘a vicious beast’. It is un-concealed as either ‘loveable’ or ‘vicious’ based on one’s interactions with it. This is why if someone is attacked at an early age, often all dogs will be regarded as a threat – because of the previous (dangerous) interaction between the subject and the object. It is through these interactions with objects, that our world emerges.

It’s not like you will learn everything from the world through your senses. And it’s not as if you only project onto the world as interpretation. It’s something in between and it’s a dynamic, like bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is the processes that occurs when, for example, your computer boots up. Your computer is first ‘off’, and when turned ‘on’, a bunch of simple processes occur, and from those processes more complex processes emerge, and then out of those some more complex processes emerge. Well that’s what happens to us with regards to reality – you bootstrap yourself. Each experience in life changes us, even in microscopic ways, towards new realities. This is akin to the lesson of Heraclitus that says no person can step into the same water twice. There is a constant flow to life that we are a part of, in which, we incessantly are emerging in an ever-changing way.

Why in the world is this important? Because as you act in the world, you generate information, and out of that information you make the structures inside of you and you make the world. Your reality is neither objective in that it is driven solely by sense perception. And your world is not simply whatever interpretation you project. Rather, your world emerges to you as it unfolds and unconceals itself to you; putting you in the position to interact and cope with the (positive or negative) physiological reactions to experience.

Objective rationalism collapses into itself

Objective rationalism collapses into itself because it assumes a God’s eye view of reality, when really, it’s just a slightly different angle at best. Let’s dig deeper. Objective rationalism purports to be able to uncover an objective reality. Its apparently value-free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this “view from nowhere” to use Thomas Nagel’s phrase, is itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real or closer to the nature of things.

Simply put: what we come to know consists not of things, but of relationships, each apparently separate entity qualifying the others to which it is related. Objective rationalism collapses into itself because while it privileges detachment from objects, it utterly ignores our relationship with the object. It focuses on isolation while excluding connection. Let’s fact it, everything has a particular context and within that context, we imbue certain entities with meaning. It is our context and connection with the world that constructs our reality. A parasitic dependence on objective rationalism is what you have with robots, and simply collapses with humans because of our complex ability to abstract experiences and process phenomena in meaningful ways. Therefore, one person may reasonably conclude that, for example, capital punishment is just, while another can reasonably conclude it is unjust, and thus murder. Objective rationalism cannot adjudicate this dilemma because people have different experiences, affects and interactions of phenomena.

 

Subverting Rationality (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using Pragmatism to Reconcile Religion and Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can hold contradictions by making distinctions

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

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

Two Different Vocabularies: one religious and the other scientific

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither science or religion get us to the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who do we demand evidence from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religionists owe us no justification for their private internal beliefs

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

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

Last Words

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

 

 

 

Necessary Illusions: for the secular and religious

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need illusions because reality is crippling

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

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

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

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

What are the attributes to a mentally healthy person

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

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

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

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

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

Illusions are ubiquitous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Illusions on a Supernatural level

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

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

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

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

meaningFinal Words

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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