A Shallow Dive into Meaning

Written at Starbucks in Willow Glen with my usual blonde roast coffee and Avicii on Pandora. This essay is inspired by my counseling sessions with people on hospice, with months to live. More to come.

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Life is intrinsically meaningless. By intrinsic, I simply mean in-and-of-itself. For life is in fact deeply meaningful once we infuse it with meaning through shared experiences and values between conscious minds. A jug of water that sits on the surface of Mars, unbeknownst to any person in the universe is meaningless. However, a jug of water that is found by a dehydrated traveler in the Sahara is profoundly meaningful; for it can nourish his body or even save his life. It takes a conscious mind (an experiencer) to experience meaning. A letter received in the mail is rather meaningless. But everything changes if the letter inside the envelope reveals whether the recipient is accepted or denied entrance into medical school. For then, it’s not just a letter; it’s a portal into another dimension of life. Given these nuances, what then can we say about a meaningful life?

Meaning is an abstract representation of value and significance. When engaged with meaningful activities, we’re induced with visceral feelings that overtake and move us to acknowledge that some-thing or some-one is valuable and significant. Meaning is abstract like love, in that you can’t point directly to it or put it under a microscope to view it- yet we dare not deny its existence. A meaningful life obtains breadth and depth through engagement in relationships and connecting with the world through the expression of values and passions. Meaning is the elixir to life itself, in that, we need it to get through life. Without meaning, why or how would anyone go on? In contrast, our life takes on more purpose and significance when we allow ourselves to be bowled over by such experiences like beauty, love, and generosity, etc.

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The responsibility of experiencing meaning falls upon you – the individual. We affect the quality and significance of meaning through our outlook and openness to life. Monday mornings, for example, are intrinsically meaningless. In-and-of-itself, Monday morning serves as a designation of time- that’s it. However, Monday morning gains contours and a complexion through its representation as, for example, the ending of your restful weekend and back to the office for another week of grinding it out. When you get out of bed on a Monday, you can either imbue the beginning of your week with a negative and nihilistic outlook or positive and opportunistic outlook. However, the somber and dismal perspective we put on Monday morning is a subjective expression that we imbue. The same goes with the breadth and depth of meaning in your life: the people, experiences, and perspective you take on life is shaped by the value and worth you imbue upon them.

Meaning gets its force and vitality through the value. My bi-annual trip to Hawaii with my family has a lot of value for me; while my business trip last January to Houston had little value. Laying with my 20-month old son as he goes to sleep is deeply valuable; but if my son is replaced with my cat Muffins, then it loses its meaningful force. Value, in the context that I am using it, is a symbolic representation of the worth and significance of some-thing or some-one. The beauty of our neural circuitry and evolutionary trajectory is that we possess the capacity to feel empathic, connect deeply, and express passionately. We have been blessed with the proclivities and predispositions to be turned inside-out by awe and wonder. Thus, we engage in meaningful projects, political movements, hobbies, and relationships that grip our attention while enriching our lives.

Any cursory discussion around meaning most always ends up with someone asking, “Well then, what is the meaning of life?” Well to start, there is a vast and crucial difference between “meaning of life” and “meaning in life.” It’s amazing how one little preposition can have such an impact! The search for the meaning of life is like the search for the fountain of youth – it’s something outside of you that you need to find in order to make you whole. While the search for meaning in life is your personal quest to figure out what keeps you motivated to get out of bed every morning – day after day. Albert Camus begins his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, by stating, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question…” The worth and value of life is found in meaningful experiences, pursuits, and relationships – in life. Meaning is not out there waiting for you to find it, for example, at a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. Rather, our day-to-day being itself, is a mosaic of meaningful opportunities and pursuits that should open our eyes to the panoply of beauty and value that surrounds us – in life.

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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.

 

 

 

Concepts as Absolute Truth

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Necessary Illusions: for the secular and religious

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need illusions because reality is crippling

I once heard atheist apologist Matt Dillahunty say,  “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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Against Hope

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

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

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

What do we tend to think of hope?

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

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

Hopelessness

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

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

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

Deconstructing Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

knlknSelf-Awareness, Acceptance and Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

skcxsxOptimism

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

Final Reflections

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

It was Nikos Kazantzakis who said,

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

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

It’s the courageous who live without hope.

~ Wes Fornes

 

Farewell to Truth

Written over 2 days, with my new Beats headphones blasting Brittany Spears. Finished at Orchard Valley Coffee house in Campbell, CA.

Uselessness of Truth

aaTruth is an unnecessary abstract concept. Truth is simply a semantic notion used as a linguistic placeholder for expressing ‘what is’. All that we know about truth is how to justify beliefs and that the adjective ‘true’ is the word we apply to beliefs we’ve justified. Furthermore, we know a belief can be true without being justified and that’s about all we know about truth. Nietzsche takes us a little deeper by calling truth “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations that have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, translated, and embellished, and that after long use strike people as fixed, canonical, and binding: truths are illusions, metaphors that have become worn-out and deprived of their sensuous force, coins that have lost their imprint and are now no longer seen as coins but as metal.”

Truth is a human construction infused with a meaning because it works. Like Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’, words are part of a language-game that serve as the building blocks for communication. There are many ‘language games’, different activities that we perform using words.  There is no ‘essence’ of language, no single common feature that explains the whole range of its uses. For example, from the 1300s-1600s, the word “nice” meant silly, foolish, or ignorant. If you had called a woman “nice” in the 1500s, you might have been slapped. Now, however, people readily accept the compliment “nice”. What is my point? Humans are the arbiters of the ‘use’ of words and the ‘descriptions’ they point to.

Words are human constructions devoid of ultimate definition residing ‘out there’ that mirrors reality. After all, when I say “snow is white” I cannot point to some Platonic Form in the heavens that gives me the ultimate picture of ‘white-ness’. All that I have are the descriptors and images of ‘white-ness’ such that I can differentiate white from, say, black and orange. Even the letters that make up the word w-h-i-t-e are constructions that could have easily been any number of letter variations to describe the idea of white. ‘White’ could have been just as easily been ‘Dobblewobble’.

Given the abstract linguistic phenomena of ‘truth’, my contention is that we can do without the useless concept of truth. Recall when Pontius Pilate asked the famous abstract question “What is truth”? I would have asked Pontius Pilate, “What is it that you’re interested in? If Pontius Pilate gives me the assumed answer, “I’m interested whether Jesus is guilty,” well then, he’s got an inquiry to conduct. And we know what you can do to conduct an inquiry (i.e. use reason, senses, conduct a trial, etc.). I’m interested in bringing the useless abstractions of truth and reality to local sphere of inquiry. There is no need of ‘truth’. To say “it’s true that this man is guilty” is the same as “this man is guilty.” Thus, Pontius Pilate’s question should have been, “Is Jesus guilty?”, and that’s a question that doesn’t involve any notion of truth.

The Futility of Objectivity

There is no objective truth. Truth is not ‘out there’ such that we can transcend language to a thing-in-itself. Because of this, we have no responsibility to truth or any of its surrogates (i.e. reality). Lacking responsibility to ‘truth’ doesn’t entail that we are forever deluded and lost; to the contrary, liberal values such as justice, freedom and cooperation still exist to be forever chiseled and molded to the benefit of society. Furthermore, we will continue to research, collect data, and conduct inquiries in order to make progress. ‘Progress’, however, is not an ultimate conception that points to ‘reality’, rather it’s a generalization that captures the picture of the flourishing of society.

We can look back to the Enlightenment and see an applicable analogy. When Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers detached moral obligations from divine commands, they did not think that they were revising our moral concepts but that they were describing them more clearly. They were helping us clarify our conception of morality. Morality was never ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. When thinkers of the Enlightenment dissociated moral deliberation from divine commands, their writings did not provoke any notable increase in the amount of immorality. I do not see why the separation of the notion of ‘truth’ from that of ‘reality in itself’ should produce either increased insincerity or a willingness to be deluded.

To assume that objectivity points to a truth or an absolute truth simply makes one intellectually dishonest. Let’s assume I am asked: Did Shakespeare write Hamlet? You may respond, “Yes, all that I have read and that which was taught to me points to the affirmative.” This question, however, is as meaningless as: Are unicorns hollow inside? The question has no definitive and objective answer that we can know for certain. Perhaps now you challenge me and proclaim: “Well, Shakespeare either wrote Hamlet or he didn’t – either it’s true or false.” Wonderful, then which is it? And how will you transport yourself back in time to Shakespeare’s era to get at the objective answer whereby you utilize your senses to locate your definitive answer? You cannot. But you can take the data and inquiries and humbly say, “Based on my research, I have a high degree of certainty that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.” Using another example, I have a higher degree of certainty that Grover Cleveland was once President of the U.S. compared with a much lower degree of certainty that Alexander the Great once tutored Aristotle. I am very content in freeing myself from the myth of ‘absolute truth’ so that I can leave room for inquiry and search for clearer perspectives.

The distinction I am drawing with the Grover Cleveland example is between ‘truth’ and those ‘beliefs that appear justified’. This is analogous to the contrast between future audiences and present-day audiences. Future audiences, unlike present-day audiences, will presumably have at their disposal more data, or alternative explanations, or simply greater intellectual sophistication. Imagine being in the audience in the early 20th century listening to an academic talk on genetics. The apparent ‘truths’ and ‘reality’ proffered at the lecture are ludicrous in contrast to our present-day audience. Thus, we can talk about ‘beliefs that appear justified’ while leaving out ‘truth-talk’. No historical period has a privileged access to objective truth. Alas, future audiences will continue to evolve and morph ideas for practical purposes.

Science and Provisional Truths

Absolute or objective truths provide comfort and stability for people with insecure worldviews. The danger of absolute truths is that they can be easily weaponized so that one has a feeling of correctness, however delusional they may be. Absolute truths, in Christendom, is what convicted the progressive Galileo and justified the slaughter of thousands through the Crusades. Perhaps it’s time we put absolute and objective truths to rest and employ nonchalant language. As I previously mentioned, speaking in terms of “degrees of certainty” is a more appropriate way to address claims. But I should expound on this more. We have methods of discerning the veracity of claims, of which, science appears to be the most reliable method.

A reasonable definition of science is that it is a method for understanding how the universe (matter, our bodies and behavior, the cosmos, and so on) actually works. In addition, Michael Shermer states science is a collection of methods that produce “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” The key word in both of these definitions is “method.” It is precisely this method that overturned the thought that the continents are static, when actually they move at the same rate that our fingernails grow. It is this method that helped Edwin Hubble show that the universe is expanding when it was previously believed to be static as well. It is also this method that helped Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA, when so many before thought that the genetic material was a protein. The examples are never-ending, from advancements in medicine, technology and architecture; science has been the most reliable method to help us get to the best way of knowing the facts.

Scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional: there is no bell that rings when you’re doing science to let you know that you’ve finally reached the absolute and unchangeable truth and need go no further. As the philosopher Walter Kauffman explained, “What distinguishes knowledge is not certainty but evidence.” Furthermore, Scientific truths are transitory, some (but not all) of what we find is eventually made obsolete, or even falsified, by new findings. That is not a weakness but strength, for our best understanding of phenomena will alter changes in our way of thinking, our tools for looking at nature, and what we find in nature itself. What moves science forward is ignorance. The danger of absolute truth is that is puts an end to further inquiry and questioning. Why? Because the “truth” has been found and there is further need for progress. Science on the other hand, looks at theories as provisional and keeps the quest for understanding alive.

Truthfulness is Not Extinct

Denying truth does not in any way prevent me from speaking to virtues like truthfulness, sincerity, exactness, and trust. We can deny truth and still have, for example, a judicial system that exacts justice with uses of reason, justification, and inquiry. Creating a climate of trust can be cultivated in any group or society where open dialogue is free to flourish. I agree with Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis when he said, “I have a deep belief in the capacity for human minds to work things out for themselves if they don’t have to live in terror.” This type of liberal ideal that Varoufakis captures elevates cooperation and a social dialogue which [can] propel societies toward progress. Justice, for example, doesn’t have a [T]ruth to it or an ultimate conception in the mind of God – nor does it need an ultimate foundation – yet we can still use reason, shared agreement and inquiry to establish a rule of law. Lastly, the denial of truth doesn’t take away meaning from expressions. Ideas like justice, fairness and integrity have meaning if you give it meaning. There is no current debate if honesty, for example, is amoral or not; to the contrary, it is held in high esteem because of a shared agreement.

To be fair, my opponent might retort: But what if I deny truth and choose to live a life based on conniving and deceiving? Well, if you cannot be trusted then I would ask if you are you ready to accept the dire consequences of a conniving life? Consider the sleepless nights, fractured relationships, and the constant looking over your shoulder while always in the back of your head wondering when you’ll get found out. I have no doubts that the hedge fund managers who conned millions of dollars through Ponzi schemes had restless and angst-filled lives deep within them, even though they appeared confident. Society has mechanisms to expose these types of people. Every society that has ever existed has had to channel and subdue certain aspects of human nature – greed, territorial violence, avarice, deceit, laziness, cheating, etc. – through social mechanisms and institutions. Social mechanisms have uncovered that generalizations such as truthfulness, sincerity and exactness carry a high currency that is cached out in society for the purpose of increased flourishing.

 Addressing Relativism

With the conception of truth that I am defending, it is common to assume that I am advocating relativism. My aim, however, is to propose a view that takes an ethnocentric shape which seeks solidarity in a climate of ideas where “unforced agreement” thrives as opposed to “objectivity”. Before moving on, I will quickly unpack three current views commonly referred by the name relativism.

The first view says that every belief is as good as every other. The second view says that “true” is an equivocal term, having as many meanings as there are procedures of justification. The third view, which I subscribe to, is that there is nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart from descriptions of the familiar procedures of justification which a given society – ours – uses in one or another area of inquiry. The pragmatist holds the ethnocentric third view.

In no way am I saying that what is true, what is good, and what is right is relative to some particular ethnos. It is not clear why “relativist” should be thought of as an appropriate term for the ethnocentric third view. For I am not holding a positive theory which says that something is relative to something else. Instead, I am making the purely negative point that we should drop the traditionally distinction between knowledge and opinion, construed as the distinction between truth as correspondence to reality and truth as a commendatory term for well-justified beliefs.

My primary suggestion is to propose solidarity through unforced agreement. We experience solidarity through acculturation and the exchanging of cultural features. Our acculturation is what makes certain options live, or momentous, while leaving others dead, or trivial, or optional. An example would be moral progress in America through the unforced legislation of laws that promote liberty and well-being. Whether it’s slavery or women’s rights, reason has propelled persuasive options to thrive in the marketplace of ideas. Persuasion across such fundamental differences is achieved, if at all, by concrete comparisons of particular alternatives, by elaborate description and redescription of the kinds of life to which different practices conduce.

To say that unforced agreement is enough raises the specter of relativism. For those who say that a pragmatic view of rationality is unwholesomely relativistic ask: “Unforced agreement among whom? Us? The Nazis? Any arbitrary culture or group? The answer, of course, is “us.” This necessarily ethnocentric answer simply says that we must work by our own lights. What we cannot do is to rise above all human communities, actual and possible. As Richard Rorty states, “We cannot find a skyhook which lifts us out of mere coherence – mere agreement – to something like “correspondence with reality as it is in itself.”

Final Thoughts

We can and should do away with the useless notions of truth. Speaking in provisional truths or degrees of certainty fosters both humility and open dialogue to understanding. We can still build upon trust and exactness without genuflecting before Truth. The processes and methods that science affords us has proven, thus far, to be the most reliable way for weeding out ridiculous ideas. Civilization has traversed from bronzed age thinking to Enlightenment reason through reason, inquiry, methods of science, and open discourse. Humanity has elevated the liberal ideals of liberty and justice through shared agreements and solidarity – and will continue to do so. Given our inability to transcend language, or have language mirror reality, we are left with the ultimate freedom to share ideas, learn from the past, and continue in conversation and dialogue.