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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

What’s Wrong with Indiscriminately Chopping Off Heads?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

life-2Natural Rights: What We Deserve

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

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

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

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

rtThe Contrarian’s Response

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

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

Consequences: The Price for Doing Whatever You Want

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

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

knlknFinal Thoughts: Moral Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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