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Religions, Nations, and Other Useful Fictions

In the age of Neo-Darwinian synthesis between natural selection and Mendelian genetics, it appears increasingly impossible to give credence to any idea metaphysical, spiritual, or religious. The dualism of Rene Descartes—a world reduced to machinery and a separate soul, to “measure and number” combined with Christian theology—was the origin of our modern worldview. But it has been entirely exorcised, emptied of soul and Christianity, respecting only the machine underneath.

It has become common sense to consider the human subject as little more than a machine, or a computer. Subjectivity itself is a curse, expelled by theories in the philosophy of mind such as Daniel Dennett’s inclination to consider consciousness itself “an illusion.” Sam Harris has said that “consciousness is the only thing that cannot possibly be an illusion.” Harris is right, but Dennett understands more clearly the stakes for materialist philosophy.

As the world grows more mechanical, religious inclination is produced from the merciless rack of empiricism and positivism. New ways of contextualizing religious belief have emerged from the tradition of Christian existentialism, which dates back to Soren Kierkegaard, and found a home in the twentieth century writings of Lutheran-Protestant theologian Paul Tillich.

Tillich travelled the United States in the early twentieth century, delivering lectures to packed crowds. He was speaking not exclusively for the intellectual class, but appealing to American society writ large. Tillich was a populist preacher. His theology was unconventional—in his book The Courage To Be, he writes of “a God above God,” or a principle of the highest good that exists beyond traditional belief in Yahweh as the patriarch of the universe. For Tillich, the courage to exist was to behave “as if” that highest good exists, and to embody it in action. Tillich saw this as the synthesis of existentialism and Christianity—not faith in Gods and resurrections, but faith that the structure of being itself answers to the person with the courage to act as if the cosmos is coherent, and ultimately, good.

For the ancient Greeks, atheism and theism were defined by behavior, not belief. An atheist was a person who acted as if there is no highest good, as if the world is purely a machine to reap reward at the cost of others. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful were inherently domains of faith—they are by no means obvious in waking life. Rather, living as if they exist, if only as aspirations, is an act of faith in itself. Not faith in The Bible or Koran or any particular deity, but faith in the ultimate coherence of the cosmos and in the idea that what is good can be enacted by animals as low as we are.

We know that atheists behave as if the highest good exists. Yet, in a purely secular cosmology, human beings are only the result of adaptation. Our faculties, as Darwinian creatures, have not evolved to seek truth—they have evolved to seek survival. Why shouldn’t we simply align ourselves with the most powerful tribe and destroy our enemies? Why shouldn’t all our mental faculties simply be post hoc justifications for what we do? Many atheists, such as Sam Harris, have argued that free will does not exist. Economist Robin Hanson, in The Elephant in The Brain, has argued that most of our behaviors are driven by social signaling, not a desire for truth.

If human beings are just biological machines that have evolved to seek survival, then the highest good is already a kind of social fiction. It is the story we tell ourselves about our actions, which may or may not even be within our own control. Morality is a human construction. The highest good is just a story. But ethical human behavior is coordinated by such useful fictions. Nations are social constructions, but that does not mean they are ‘false’ exactly. We tell stories about nations to ground ourselves in a reality that is sufficiently accurate to ensure our continuing survival. We tell stories about great heroes and religious figures for the same reason—to coordinate human survival according to an imaginary ideal. Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad are fictions proposed to guide human behavior.

An archetype is simply an idea that recurs in human storytelling across cultures. This claim is nested in comparative mythology, or the study of ancient mythological stories to see exactly what common themes crop up across completely different civilizations. Rationalist critics of religion do not tend to engage with thinkers such as Carl Jung, who saw our mental fictions as more important to our lives than even the material facts of existence. For conscious creatures, the stories we tell ourselves about existence coordinate everything that we do, which makes them of primary importance to natural selection—which ideas are allowed to survive determine the type of creatures we become. If Adolf Hitler becomes the hero of a story that spreads across the globe, then we will become creatures utterly unlike the ones we are today.

Why do human beings tell stories at all? Even if we suppose that every other animal has conscious experience identical to our own, there is no history of written or documented storytelling amongst animal cultures. Chimpanzees may wield sticks, but they do not use them to carve images of bison in stone. Perhaps someday they will. But, for now, we must assume that storytelling is a unique feature of human consciousness. Human beings tell stories and construct fictions because it is part of our evolutionary heritage. Cultures, nations, and the Odyssey are all human inventions, yet they are also real features of our lives. Analyses of the world which reject religion wholesale are only interested in the material element of our world, not the stories that had an enormous hand in building it.

There is a major elephant in the room for atheistic materialist science: the evolution of storytelling creatures is unprecedented. A self-reflexive, conscious subject that tells useful fictions is introduced to a world once filled only with passive and inanimate things, and the magnitude of this development is not properly contextualized by materialist philosophy. Carl Sagan waxes poetically about how we are the universe’s way of understanding itself, but the truly bizarre nature of this development is smoothed over in the total materialist evolutionary picture. Why should any beings tell stories? Why should fiction become a major element in coordinating evolutionary behavior?

Theologians such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have long made the argument that evolution is not entirely purposeless. Rather, the evolution of matter from organic chemistry, to biological instinct, into conscious storytelling represents a coherent chain of complexification, against the slings and arrows of galactic entropy. That chain of material evolution into the state of human consciousness, the first state of matter able to reflect upon and tell stories about itself, is the basis of a 21st century study of the transcendental. Contemporary theologian and philosopher John Haught has argued that God is the totality of an evolving, incomplete universe. The universe—through animals, and more recently through human beings—is becoming conscious of itself. At the end of that chain of increasing consciousness awaits the ideal of ‘God,’ whatever it truly is, beyond our limited comprehension as temporary creatures trapped in constantly evolving matter.

The problems of religious fundamentalism should also vanish once we understand that the universe is not a static, perfect thing, but a thing in evolution. Our notions of God are incomplete because the fundamental state of the universe is incomplete. It is still in becoming, and our human consciousness is at the very edge of that great becoming. Carl Jung once theorized that the Biblical Yahweh himself was ‘unconscious,’ more animal, more unrefined in his callous behavior, than the Christian Gospels which followed. The idea that religious symbols can evolve is radical and perhaps heretical, but clear thinking demands it.

Our religious symbols and ideals are inexhaustible and permanent—no matter how many ways you articulate what ‘God’ is, you have missed one. God, to our rational mind, is the ultimate useful fiction. It is the story capable of coordinating all human behaviors in the image of self-reproduction, or survival. The discovery of God is the discovery of behavior which is most perfectly suited to not only our own lives, but everyone’s lives. It is the behavior capable of ensuring that human beings will still live to realize higher and higher ideals thousands of years from now.

As we enter an age of absolute uncertainty, where climate change is altering the structure of the natural world, and our human stories have led to the development of nuclear missiles, permanent wars, and atmospheric change, the story capable of coordinating all this madness becomes more and more essential to find. As storytelling beasts, we now have the power to wipe out ourselves and countless other species. Our power has far outpaced our self-understanding. In the final hour of our evolution, a thousand reaching hands seek to uncover the heart of the mystery, and the ultimate behavior which threads the ideal of the good, the true, and with some luck, also the beautiful.

 

Alexander Blum’s writing focuses on politics, mysticism, and fiction. Visit his website here and follow him on Twitter @AlexanderBlum0

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56 Comments

  1. Wow! Science isn’t about “Absolute Certainty”, its about what’s probable. And how about some supporting evidence for the statement “It has become common sense to consider the human subject as little more than a machine, or a computer”? This article is the only place where I’ve read that assertion…. (Straw horses bound off into the sunset)….

    rz

    • Kev C says

      you obviously misconstrue “machine” to mean “without emotion”. The author means that without religion (as atheists, which most people are now), there is only the material world. Material=machine. It’s a tough piece to understand.

      • david of Kirkland says

        Emotion is just another human response as the brain detects certain chemicals (hormones). Until someone can show the non-material world, it’s going to be a hard sale to suggest that morality or god was “discovered” to actually exist beyond being a set of stories passed down each generation, unfounded in reality as best we can detect it.

        • jimp93 says

          The best case for the existence of the non-material world is that without it, the universe came out of nothing. That means something and nothing are interchangeable, which cannot be supported by by a materialistic philosophy.

  2. Kev C says

    Fantastic piece. Over 10 years ago i, like many others, threw religion in the garbage “wholesale”, and now see quite clearly its value and importance. I still don’t believe in a “god that the bible tells us exists”, but i see that living life as though “he” exists is the best possible way to live a life when measured against all other paths people take today and historically. Thank you for such a brilliant articulation of the concept.

    • david of Kirkland says

      But why is believing in an accepted myth “the best possible way to live a life”? You assert it without evidence, especially as most who believe in god do so as described in biblical texts (and related texts of others), thus they are or aren’t living the best way? Cooperation via liberty and equal protection are the greatest ideas man has created, not fear of some all-powerful creator entity that magically transferred morality into our stories and lives. Science allows us a great model for how to determine and separate what’s real or imagined. Useful fictions are showing themselves less useful over time, as even nations now suffer in a global world with fast communications and transportation. We need more universal cooperation via liberty and equal protection than more division by nations or religions.

      • Baker says

        The idea of something greater than ourselves drives us forward. Encourages us to understand and innovate and discover. God gives us something to look up to and strive to be like. Like a father to a child. The child looks to his father, someone bigger and smarter, to learn about the world. We do the same. We look up and say I want to know more, to be like you. Then we go out and learn more.

        When we stop looking up and seeking more than we are, we will stop learning, we will have established ourselves as god and once we do that we will determine there is nothing left to learn.

      • @Kirkland

        You are ignoring the extent to which equal protection and individual liberty are fundamentally based in the Juneau-Christian world view and cannot stand by rational principle alone.

    • Stefan Kløvning says

      Moral stories does not so much find their utility in their compatibility with the objective world, as much as with the kind of behavior it promotes. These kinds of stories don’t have the same purpose as facts for being distributed.

    • jimp93 says

      OK, but these stories are about human nature, the most complex known entity in the universe, too complex to be properly interrogated by the usual methods of deciding true from false. Arguably, evolution is the ultimate test of reality, and all societies that have endured tell stories, and those that don’t have all died out.

  3. Intersectional Playboi says

    “Subjectivity itself is a curse, expelled by theories in the philosophy of mind such as Daniel Dennett’s inclination to consider consciousness itself “an illusion.” Sam Harris has said that “consciousness is the only thing that cannot possibly be an illusion.” Harris is right, but Dennett understands more clearly the stakes for materialist philosophy.”

    I believe that both Dennett and Harris are using the word “illusion” in different ways in this particular context. I doubt, for instance, that Dennett would deny that we experience consciousness phenomenologically, from a subjective, first-person point-of-view. In that particular sense – and the one that Harris acknowledges – consciousness is no mere illusion.

    What people like Dennett are intending to get at with the locution that consciousness is an “illusion” is that the way in which we pre-theoretically and subjectively experience it is radically misleading as a window onto its true nature, and certainly no grounds from which to issue apodictic or even probable conclusions about its nature. Consciousness is an ‘appearing’: it has a subjective, first-person quality to it (‘qualia’, to use the philosophical term); but that doesn’t mean that the ‘appearing’ bears much if any relation to what its true nature is.

    A recent and illuminating excursion into the issue by Dennett can be found here:
    https://open-mind.net/papers/why-and-how-does-consciousness-seem-the-way-it-seems

    • I think Dennett argues from the premise that the brain is a computer and that consciousness as we think of it cannot exist because a computer cannot produce subjective experiences. His whole premise, in a way, is reasoned backwards – of course your subjective consciousness is a trick produced by the brain, otherwise it’s incoherent to the current scientific paradigm. My problem is that our subjective experiences are so much richer than these deflationary theories that I do not see the reason in allowing one potentially reasonable theory to dismiss the phenomenon of human consciousness altogether as just a byproduct with no purpose. The weight of evidence, which must include those very experiences, tilts towards the complete unknown. Dennett’s theory also totally bulldozes over various different types of subjective consciousness, such as dreaming, imagining something, and seeing red, casting them all in the same position. I’m not sure that’s correct.

      • neoteny says

        Dear Mr. Blum,

        may I recommend to you Valentino Braitenberg’s delightful Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology?

      • Intersectional Playboi says

        “My problem is that our subjective experiences are so much richer than these deflationary theories that I do not see the reason in allowing one potentially reasonable theory to dismiss the phenomenon of human consciousness altogether as just a byproduct with no purpose.”

        The problem that people like me have with this take is that it lends too much weight to subjective introspection as a source of evidence on the nature of consciousness. At minimum, we should note the various peculiarities of phenomenology, and then get to the difficult business of devising scientific hypotheses and engaging in the usual empirical investigations (including the sort of investigations that could turn up tantalizing new hints that inform theorizing), all with an eye to explaining conscious subjectivity in a wholly naturalistic way. Another problem for your perspective is that, since it places so much weight on subjective introspection, not everyone will share your Mysterianism about consciousness. For instance, people like me do not introspect our qualia and then (eventually) conclude that it is more likely than not that consciousness is some sort of non-physical phenomena. Rather, we wonder what physical explanations could account for the ‘appearing’ of subjectivity. Whereas the first inclination is akin to an argument for ignorance, the second is more in line with that scientific attitude that has brought us deep and powerful explanations of wide swathes of natural phenomena, in many cases phenomena that were at one time equally mysterious as consciousness is to many – and of course this explanatory progress is well attested to by the history of science going back centuries, if not also back to the ancient Greeks. The first attitude, in other words, has a very bad track record; the second attitude, in virtue of history, quite difficult to gainsay.

        Whenever I come across a dualist (of one stripe or another) or a non-physicalist these days, I will sometimes pose a question like this to them: I will ask them to describe what Bayesian predictive coding is in cognitive science (and there are any of a number of other questions I can give them). Without fail, dualists and non-physicalists have no idea what that is. The moral is this: Mysterians do show a real tendency to argue from ignorance, and the Mysterian cast of mind discourages (perhaps deeply discourages) the kind of curiosity and investigation that scientific problems require – fundamentally, an openness to possibilities. Physicalists can consider dualism and non-physicalism as possibilities, but only once the physicalist options of naturalism have first been adequately tried; and we’re by no means at an impasse on that front.

        “Dennett’s theory also totally bulldozes over various different types of subjective consciousness, such as dreaming, imagining something, and seeing red, casting them all in the same position.”

        But all those types of consciousness do have a subjectivity that we experience, no? Isn’t that the primary target of explanation?

        • There is an element to this response that is interesting.

          First, you admit you have a bias toward explaining your experience in terms of scientific theory. I have the precise opposite bias – I think our experiences stand on their own, and cannot be squashed by a theory unless it is nigh irrefutable. I regularly have internal experiences play out in my imagination which fill me with awe, often with tears. I derive more meaning from these experiences than any theorizing or even writing. We might be approaching this question with 100% different empirical phenomenological data. Which I know materialists don’t accept, but I do have to ask – have you ever had imagined sequences play out in your mind that struck you as wholly “other” and contained profound emotional, “spiritual”, and psychological meaning? More meaning than any other type of experience? If not, then we are both arguing from ignorance of the other. But I know you don’t accept that either, because the idea that an experience can be powerful enough to stand “on its own” doesn’t fly in your worldview. And the intuition of the “other” is a category error, and cannot possibly be genuine. It can always be explained in some mechanistic terminology that squashes and eliminates the full experience, deferring to some other “mode of knowing” that stands above our firsthand intuitive evolutionary brain, which is strong enough to uncover the laws of mathematics and physics, so the idea that it’s entirely “tricked” here is deeply unlikely.

          Second is the idea that Bayesian predictive coding can explain these experiences. To which it may make sense in terms of explaining how we perceive and see ordinary existence. But I only ask – what right does an ape have to contemplate “God”? If that’s all just a coding error then that’s awfully convenient. Storytelling and religion remain components of our evolutionary heritage that Dennett and Bayesian predictive coding can only explain because they are there. There is no casual mechanism anywhere in your philosophy that would make human consciousness and storytelling likely or even possible.

          • To put my position as succinctly as possible:

            Even if we are able to fully explain everything in the universe through Bayesian predictive coding, there remains no explanation whatsoever for why one ape species suddenly evolved a brain capable of explaining everything in the known universe in principle, including its own subjective experience of having a brain. Are we apes or are we Gods? Materialists need to pick one.

          • Intersectional Playboi says

            “First, you admit you have a bias toward explaining your experience in terms of scientific theory. I have the precise opposite bias – I think our experiences stand on their own, and cannot be squashed by a theory unless it is nigh irrefutable. I regularly have internal experiences play out in my imagination which fill me with awe, often with tears. I derive more meaning from these experiences than any theorizing or even writing. We might be approaching this question with 100% different empirical phenomenological data.”

            Our experiences are ‘seemings’, which we can in some fashion provide first-person reports on (to varying degrees of detail, depending on the experience and depending on the individual’s capacity to articulate). These first-person reports on ‘seemings’ are simply reports that it’s like something to be a conscious subject, and reports of what it seems like to the one doing the reporting. That’s it. They are data in that simple sense: to reiterate, they’re data that record what it seems like to the one doing the reporting (and reports that it’s like something to be a conscious subject). They have no license at all to stand in as self-evidently true assertions about the true nature of consciousness, and not by a long shot – no more than that the appearance of a bent-stick in a bucket of water or an afterimage in our visual field stand as self-evident signs that the stick in question is in fact bent or that the afterimage is in fact out there in the environment of the perceiver. What you’re effectively arguing is that your experience *seems to you* uniquely special and non-physical, and that this fact makes that inference self-evident. The same fallacious argument can be made about the kinds of visual illusions I mentioned above, and much else (e.g., hearing non-existent voices; firmly believing in memories which are confabulations; etc.). And whether you derive an usual amount of meaning from the experiences you cite (while I can appreciate that biographical fact about you) is irrelevant to the issue of the nature of consciousness, namely whether or not it is a physical phenomenon.

            “have you ever had imagined sequences play out in your mind that struck you as wholly “other” and contained profound emotional, “spiritual”, and psychological meaning? More meaning than any other type of experience? If not, then we are both arguing from ignorance of the other.”

            It’s possible I have had such experiences. But, as you correctly anticipated, we physicalists about consciousness wouldn’t accept such experiences, even if we have them, as issuing self-evidently true statements about the nature of consciousness – as clearly and certainly saying something about the true nature of consciousness. Do dreams tell us something profound about our lives so long as we firmly believe that they do? This is effectively the sort of argument I’m hearing you make.

            “the intuition of the “other” is a category error, and cannot possibly be genuine.”

            Actually, I’m willing to accept non-physicalism about consciousness as a possibility. But there’s no reason to accept the sorts of arguments that have been advanced by non-physicalists, because they’re arguing from ignorance, and also taking that which is far from certain as an apodictic revelation about the nature of consciousness: arguing without seeing the ways in which consciousness could be ‘no more’ than a physical phenomenon.

            “It can always be explained in some mechanistic terminology that squashes and eliminates the full experience”

            But does it? For example, why can’t we attempt to use rich ways to describe phenomenology? (Even Tom Nagel spoke about this in his famous ‘What is it Like to be Bat?’ paper, and so has Dennett for that matter.) Granted, perhaps such an approach will never be able to convey perfect and complete information about all experiences to those missing certain experiential memories and who aren’t adept at consuming such phenomenological descriptions; and so perhaps there may not be a perfect and complete substitute for ‘knowledge by direct acquaintance’ (viz., being the actual subject of an experience) for many people. Still, I don’t see how a naturalistic explanation of consciousness “squashes and eliminates the full experience”. One can explain consciousness naturalistically and yet at the same time affirm that conscious experience is ‘like something’ to the individuals subjectively experiencing it – these are not mutually exclusive positions.

            “Second is the idea that Bayesian predictive coding can explain these experiences. To which it may make sense in terms of explaining how we perceive and see ordinary existence. But I only ask – what right does an ape have to contemplate “God”? If that’s all just a coding error then that’s awfully convenient. Storytelling and religion remain components of our evolutionary heritage that Dennett and Bayesian predictive coding can only explain because they are there. There is no casual mechanism anywhere in your philosophy that would make human consciousness and storytelling likely or even possible.”

            I wouldn’t couch the capacity for apes like us to contemplate Gods as coding error, but I see what you’re trying to say. The same could be said about planes: What right does an ape (like us) have to contemplate planes? I mean, they weren’t a feature of our evolutionary history, ergo there were no selection pressures at all that made it so that our cognitive endowment needed to be such that their contemplation was possible. And yet…here we are, contemplating and even building such things (planes, that is). Our particular evolutionary history made our minds capable of contemplating such things all the same. That doesn’t make their contemplation deeply mysterious any more than that a bookend can be used as a doorstop; the design of the bookend can be co-opted to that other end, even though its original design had no such intended function by its designers. No mysteries there. Likewise: a highly flexible and highly interconnected mind, with capacities for meta-representation, inter alia, can be co-opted to ponder things that never existed during its evolutionary history, including things that it was never selected for by natural selection to ponder.

            “Are we apes or are we Gods? Materialists need to pick one.”

            What I sketched above about the cognitive endowment that natural selection produced in us should be enough to show why this is a false dichotomy (and a bit too rhetorical a framing for what should be treated as a scientific question, I should add).

  4. dirk says

    A recent book on particularly this issu is Die Macht des Heiligen (Power of Sacredness) of Hans Joas. He writes that religion is something among us for 1000s of years, whereas science and humanism only 300 yrs. Is religion purely archaic? like Freud, Nietsche, Dawkins, Habermas and so many others explain? No, he says, and I think he is right. In the Netherlands, maybe the most secular of European nations (even more than Russia, where religion and churchlife florishes again), we now have the trend of ” Somethingism”, because, there must be something above or around us , is it the Ghost that blew over the waters in the times before Creation or Evolution?

  5. AC Harper says

    I see what you did there. Speaking of biological evolution and cosmological evolution as if there was some deep equivalence and arguing for teleology for both strikes me a razzle-dazzle way of injecting your own ‘god story’ into the gaps.

    On the other hand if you argue that ‘The Mind Is Flat’ (a new book by Nick Chater) and that the stories we tell ourselves are moment to moment improvisations we tell ourselves to regularize our behaviour, and stories we tell others are moment by moment improvisations to justify our behaviour to others, then there is a mechanism for generating useful fictions about god(s), agency, free will, and even the existence of ‘self’ and souls.

    Archetypes are just an individual’s useful (or useless) fictions which are near enough common to those useful (or useless) fictions held by others nearby. Morals are just an individual’s useful (or useless) fictions which are near enough common to those useful (or useless) fictions held by others nearby. They either promote evolutionary fitness, or they don’t, and fitness can vary with context.

    If the universe is ‘flat’ (no hidden depths, no supernatural) and we are part of it, then our minds must be ‘flat’ (no hidden depths, no supernatural) too. But the useful fictions we live by explain why we feel there is more. As you say Carl Jung saw our mental fictions as more important to our lives than even the material facts of existence.

    No gods were harmed in the creation of this comment. Or were they?

    • I have to say, the thesis of “The Mind is Flat” is even worse than Dennett’s theories. Any person who has experienced extensive daydreaming with coherence and emotional content has already completely debunked the idea. Every few years, someone comes along with a big idea explaining why your experience means absolutely nothing. And despite it, the theory doesn’t stick because we are not the soulless machines these theories describe. Our extensive range of imaginative powers completely debunk the notion that the brain is just a moment-to-moment stitching together of nonsense. You’re describing some creature, but it is not a human being.

      I also don’t even believe the universe is “flat”, I think panpsychism has yet to even be fully articulated, let alone refuted.

      • AC Harper says

        “And despite it, the theory doesn’t stick because we are not the soulless machines these theories describe.” Arguing that your subjective experience debunks the theory actually avoids engaging with it.

        Your assertion from subjective experience *might* mean that the theories do not describe reality well. Alternatively it might mean those theories are merely unpalatable to you. The distinction is important – as you have said elsewhere “At every level of our civilization, human biology is relevant, and engaging with it thoughtfully could not be of more critical importance.”

        • It is incoherent to suggest that there is fundamentally nothing “to” the mind when individuals report direct experiences of profound transformative depth. Hinging your entire experience upon a potential theory that deflates it is irrational for those who heavily daydream, have had psychedelic experience, or otherwise “mystical” experiences.

          • AC Harper says

            It is hardly incoherent to propose that individuals reporting profoundly transformative experiences are just kidding themselves, even though their behaviour might, but often doesn’t, change.

            From The Mind is Flat:
            “The very idea of ‘looking’ into our own minds embodies the mistake: we talk as if we have a faculty of introspection, to scrutinize the contents of our inner world, just as we have faculties of perception, to inform us about the external world. But introspection is a process not of perception but of invention: the real-time generation of interpretations and explanations to make sense of our own words and actions. The inner world is a mirage.”

            The book considers the evidence for this proposition. Asserting that your introspection refutes this proposition does not engage with it or weigh the evidence. It is merely naysaying.

  6. X. Citoyen says

    I had a hard time getting past the commonplace:

    “In the age of neo-Darwinian synthesis between natural selection and Mendelian genetics, it appears increasingly impossible to give credence to any idea metaphysical, spiritual, or religious.”

    I can see starting with the old Darwin-refutes-Genesis line, contentious as it is. But I fail to see how Darwin speaks to the New Testament, Buddhism, animism, Hinduism, etc., as religions or spiritualisms. I see no implications for metaphysics either. Has cause and effect changed in any way? Has any other metaphysical principle changed? No.

    As for god as useful fiction, I wonder how useful your abstract and simplified fiction can be in providing meaning, guidance, or inspiration in people’s lives. Your god is the anodyne, infinite empathizer of upper-middle class spiritualism, where transcendence is always personal.

    • dirk says

      Wrong Citoyen, transcendence is not always personal, go to Santiago de Compostela and other pilgrimage resorts (Portugal, Italy, Greece) and you will see that it is something of the community, all these humble people in the streets, on their knees, behind the cross, the music, the litanies, the smoke, the sacred songs, nothing personal!!, it’s the community stupid (nothing personal, it’s a saying).

      • X. Citoyen says

        I didn’t say transcendence was personal–by definition it cannot be. I said the sort of transcendence the author proposes is personal.

        By the way, if “pilgrimage resort” is not an oxymoron, it should be.

    • AC Harper says

      No, the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis’ provides and explanation of how undirected processes can work over time to result in the species of organisms we see around us today. This makes a ‘director’ unnecessary but does not exclude the possibility of one existing.

      “As for god as useful fiction, I wonder how useful your abstract and simplified fiction can be in providing meaning, guidance, or inspiration in people’s lives. ” Some peoples’ lives are fulfilled through dedication to godless philosophies, political parties, sports teams, or hobbies. All of those are fictions of a sort too, so ‘gods’ are not a special class of their own – unless you make them so.

      • X. Citoyen says

        AC Harper,

        Not sure what you’re no-ing about; if you hadn’t said it, I’d have assumed we agreed. So let me expand on your summary because it could go several ways: Neo-Darwinism only speaks to the argument from design, namely, that the complexity of living things entails a designer. Descent with modification through natural selection shows there’s another explanation, so the inference is unjustified. But that’s it. Unless your god’s existence happens to rest on this particular inference, you might as well carry on as before. This is why I said I failed to see the world-changing importance of neo-Darwinism.

        As for “some people’s” meaning, well, yes. But the author wasn’t speaking to some people; he was offering us all his new religion. I have no problem with him offering, of course; I’m merely stating that I’m skeptical of its appeal outside some very small social circles.

  7. A complex and interesting piece. The analysis of Paul Tillich’s philosophy is quite correct and little understood. Nevertheless, the fact that culturally shared myths have actualized group and social cooperation does not mean that one should not examine whether or not those mythical stories are
    fictions. The most one can say is that since all perceptions are subjective, all belief systems are inherently illusory. People yearn for an objective observer and the concept of god was invented to be that objective observer. Yet god is just another illusion and there is and can be no objective observer. So stories are fictions. Some stories are useful and constructive (the myth of morality) and others are harmful and destructive (the nazi myth of the German state). So there is nothing inherently positive about stories. It depends on the story and the goals and values you wish to judge it in light of.

    Nevertheless @alexanderblumo’s piece is interesting as far as it goes, but fails in its quest to justify continuing to follow the illusion of the god story.

    • The piece doesn’t address whether or not the “fictions” are true. The fact that such fictions exist is already incoherent to the materialist worldview.

  8. Your assumption of the reality of your existence as Darwinian is quasi-religious, and refutes your paradigm of the possible higher good. If humanity is not accountable to a Creator it is accountable to no one, and it is pointless to pretend that there might be some higher good for the sake of social utility. You will be dead. What diffeeence does social utility make? Either man is accountable to God or he is not. Trying to hybridize those concepts is an exercise in futility and human vanity.

  9. Alexander says

    Seems like Alexander Blum and Jordan Peterson could get along well.

  10. Probably. Endless pontification about lobsters and theorizarions about man’s ability to improve himself on his own.

  11. It’s also interesting to note that Yuval Noah Harari, who is basically some sort of materialist (though he also might be a kind of Buddhist), in his book Sapiens, directly argues that large-scale useful fictions have been evolutionarily advantageous for humans. So Alexander’s argument here is not even necessarily opposed to that sort of materialist conception.

    But the existence of these evolutionarily useful fictions is definitely a problem for the stricter atheist materialist types because we collectively construct these fictions then they become part of our environment and so we adapt to them, so they are no longer entirely fictional, they are “useful” or adaptive fictions. As he points out in the piece, we’re not evolved to see reality as it really is. The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman also emphasizes this point, saying that this is the consensus view among cognitive scientists.

  12. Stefan Kløvning says

    Jordan B. Peterson appears to be taking the same perspective as the ancient Greeks here, in saying that most of those who claim to be Atheists “aren’t real Atheists,” both confusing and annoying people like Sam Harris.

  13. Stories are not simply human creations out of a self willing will. Stories are the confluence of manifold conditions entirely outside the realm of human choice or calculation. If this is true than it is odd indeed to speak of stories as being merely ‘useful fictions.’

    • dirk says

      As is language itself. It’s all structuralism at work. Jung, Freud, Levi Strauss and Peterson built a whole ideology around it.

  14. Greg Lorriman says

    My goodness. Many an atheist may as well just go in to a field and moo.

    Naturalistic explanations of religion are premature in the face of a need for proof that there is no God, a proof thought to be logically impossible, and in the face of a large proportion of the world claiming direct contact with a demanding god that logically would have the ability to prove its own existence and may well be doing so, mind to mind. The atheist claim that there is no god is extraordinary.
    Whether or not there is a god, atheists asserting ‘no god’ are always irrational. Whereas religious persons are only deluded if there were indeed no god. It is not rational to believe something that is not proven. Mooooooo!!!!!

    Faith “Belief without evidence”.

    Thanks for that presumptuous redefinition, Bertrand Russell (atheist), but that is not the religious definition; rather the opposite. The proof of a god would be a god itself, and that is what authentic faith is claimed to deliver, and not Kiergaard’s non-rational “Leap to faith” or Pascal’s “better to believe” or other such quasi-religion.

    “The God Delusion”, presumption. Dawkins can’t prove it’s a delusion, rather he presents his reasons against a god ending with “The probability of a god is infinitesimal”, yet with zero math behind that statement, rather a mere personal judgment.
    Religious persons (and not the deistic – believers in a non-personal god – presented in this article) are not claiming mere ‘belief’ which would be evidence merely of belief, but that they personally and directly know a personal god. The fact of the religious claim is itself evidence of such a god; albeit not proof. “Not a shred of evidence” is based off a gigantic presumption of ‘delusion’.

    And there are wonderful ironies here. A Catholic priest invented the Big Bang theory: Lemaitre, a recent subject of a google doodle. A Catholic monk is considered the father of modern genetics: Mendel. The Catholic Church has it wrapped up. I can hear teeth gnashing already. Science and religion as irreconcilable is a claim of atheistic scientists, not science.

    • Greg Lorriman says

      And why has Dawkins never mentioned that most of Christianity has never had a dogma of a literalist interpretation of the Bible?

      Dawkins’ best argument is the simplistic ignorance of “Who made God?”. What?!?!?!?! That question was answered millenia ago. ‘Existence’ by its nature exists of itself, as a self-referencing thing, and it is undeniable that it exists, so the question is not “Is there a god”, but “Is the ultimate thing, Existence, self-aware?”. As it is self-referencing, the question is more than pertinent. And if it is self-aware, you have yourself a god.

      Hitchens’ best argument, meanwhile, given before an audience including Dawkins, is the misrepresentative “In all of history, this god only bothered to step in and do something to stop people going to hell in the last 2,000 years. I cannot believe in a god like that”. That speech was the proof of his dishonesty.

      And all anyone has ever had to do to contact this god is persevere with “If there is a god please reveal yourself and show me why children suffer”. The simple-minded have enough sense to do it, but not the puffed-up over-educated. God responds also to the angry, though not to the arrogant or to hypocrites. For sure, Atheism is often a case of negligence in persevering in doing the bleedin’ obvious (if not caused by atheistic parenting/education, or perhaps a severe trauma).

  15. Greg Lorriman says

    “…it appears increasingly impossible to give credence to any idea metaphysical, spiritual, or religious.”, pfffftttt!!! The metaphysical is unavoidable.

    Try denying that ‘existence’ exists. Even Hawkings dabbled in the metaphysical ‘laws of nature’ when he trashed his legacy by declaring the end of philosophy. And it’s a short hop from a self-seeing self to a Trinity, as with Christianity, and soon arrives at justice and mercy, heaven and damnation.

    The paradox of the selfless self. Imagine a world where everyone was hard-wired to only want, and work for, the happiness of others, rather than their own happiness.
    Of self-giving love, perfect ‘charity’, or self-serving love. Everything is in terms of self.
    Either willing to deny oneself and be free of one’s own desires, in order to give one’s self to another as with the Trinity.

    Or a slave to passions and unwilling to deny one’s own desires, unable to truly give oneself to another, contracting self-serving marriages and mutual masturbation ‘unions’ that cannot satisfy.

    Pride: the emptiness of the self filling itself with itself. The paradox of heaven being that perfect charity has no self-interest, to be saved only for the sake of the saviour.

    “I have come to give the good news to the poor.” That sentence ends with a full stop. “I praise you, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, because you have hidden these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike.”. It’s a mark of atheists that they snootily look down upon religious persons as childish, primitive and stupid. And it’s a marvelous irony. They should have humbled themselves with “God, do you exist?”.

    But rather “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, the humble of heart.

  16. I truly enjoyed the article. A question though:

    “Carl Jung once theorized that the Biblical Yahweh himself was ‘unconscious,’ more animal, more unrefined in his callous behavior, than the Christian Gospels which followed. The idea that religious symbols can evolve is radical and perhaps heretical, but clear thinking demands it.”

    is a fascinating idea, but what does it say when islam, which came later, is such a regression?

    • I am completely uncertain as to how Islam fits into this picture. I would be very, very fascinated in someone from an Islamic background applying Jungian and meta-analyses of their own religion. Had I been born and sculpted in an Islamic context and not a Christian one, and encountered depth psychology, I wonder what conclusions I would arrive at. If ever such a scholar or writer arises (or is translated into English if they already exist out there somewhere, which they probably do), I’d take deep interest in their work.

      • dirk says

        Once born and sculpted in Islam, means, no need for,or curiosity in depth psychology and meta-analyses. Though, it depends maybe, 800 yrs ago it certainly would be otherwise, philosophers like Ibn Sina and Ibn Ruzd (and many others), I’m sure, would have shown a lot of interest. These times, however, are gone, no more ijtihad since Ghazali.

  17. “Why do human beings tell stories at all?” On that note, Chesterton, in “Everlasting Man” makes a point about those old Lascaux cave paintings – he wonders why humans did those – and no other hominid creatures ever did. Man has an impulse to tell stories – Homer – certainly not the first. Before that, the Bhaghavad Gita, the Gilgamesh epic, ….. And those are just the ones that survive.

    Humans may have discovered God (and it was a long search), but we surely didn’t invent Him

    As long as we do not try to attribute Man’s puny efforts to the cause behind climate change, we’re on solid ground. Otherwise, we’re asserting a hubris and a power we do not have..

  18. c young says

    > Nations are social constructions, but that does not mean they are ‘false’ exactly.

    Really ?

    Are our bodies social constructions? Are molecules social constructions ?

    This idea seems to depend upon a strong reductionist fallacy in which there is lower level of reality which isn’t a construction.

    See the concept of ’emergence’.

    Emergent things (like nations and bodies) are still things.

  19. There is no reply function under “Intersectional Playboi’s” most recent comment but they’ve done well in debating the Dennett/reductionist view of consciousness and feel that I should put forth some sort of response.

    They write:

    “Our experiences are ‘seemings’, which we can in some fashion provide first-person reports on (to varying degrees of detail, depending on the experience and depending on the individual’s capacity to articulate). These first-person reports on ‘seemings’ are simply reports that it’s like something to be a conscious subject, and reports of what it seems like to the one doing the reporting. That’s it. They are data in that simple sense: to reiterate, they’re data that record what it seems like to the one doing the reporting (and reports that it’s like something to be a conscious subject). They have no license at all to stand in as self-evidently true assertions about the true nature of consciousness, and not by a long shot – no more than that the appearance of a bent-stick in a bucket of water or an afterimage in our visual field stand as self-evident signs that the stick in question is in fact bent or that the afterimage is in fact out there in the environment of the perceiver. What you’re effectively arguing is that your experience *seems to you* uniquely special and non-physical, and that this fact makes that inference self-evident. The same fallacious argument can be made about the kinds of visual illusions I mentioned above, and much else (e.g., hearing non-existent voices; firmly believing in memories which are confabulations; etc.). And whether you derive an usual amount of meaning from the experiences you cite (while I can appreciate that biographical fact about you) is irrelevant to the issue of the nature of consciousness, namely whether or not it is a physical phenomenon.”

    Fundamentally, this view presupposes that what consciousness “feels like” is not valid data about the nature of consciousness until neurological imaging or Bayesian statistics tells us so. While this is trivially true of many scientific phenomena, (i.e., the world “feels” flat, of course it is not) the existence of subjectivity itself is a particularly special case. The existence of subjectivity itself is the pre-requisite for any empirical claims about reality. Additionally, the eliminative view of consciousness does not indicate anywhere the role of revelations in the psyche, which we know can be physically caused (the God Helmet or ingesting psychedelics) and are “real” experiences. If consciousness is a trick, then what are these experiences? Does anyone truly believe that a first-hand mystical experience has equal meaning to an explanation of the neural components that “produce” that experience, assuming such an explanation could even be mustered?

    The typical Dennett argument is used as evidence – if the brain can be tricked, then consciousness itself can be an illusion. I don’t find this compelling. Consciousness can be completely physically caused and still be a real experience of what being is like. We know it is because we exist and experience it as we type these debates. I am not “mistaken” in what it is like to be a human, the prerequisite for any further investigation into being human. It has epistemic weight on its own. The fact of subjectivity is a “brute fact”, and the only counter-argument to that is that the brain is a computer and subjectivity cannot exist in principle. If physicalists can get away with calling the entire fine-tuned cosmos a “brute fact”, one free miracle, then yeah, my subjective experience of being is also a “brute fact”.

    “It’s possible I have had such experiences. But, as you correctly anticipated, we physicalists about consciousness wouldn’t accept such experiences, even if we have them, as issuing self-evidently true statements about the nature of consciousness – as clearly and certainly saying something about the true nature of consciousness. Do dreams tell us something profound about our lives so long as we firmly believe that they do? This is effectively the sort of argument I’m hearing you make.”

    Absolutely they do, our firsthand experiences of being tell us important things about being. They are not just “noise” in the machine. As someone who dreams every night, I find it outrageous to suppose they are just “noise” when they have serious effects on my consciousness and often feel real. I know “feeling real” means nothing to physcialists. But we spend half of our lives asleep. They have lost so much primary datum it’s outrageous. I’m expected to read Bayesian inferencing and dismiss 40% of my experience to understand what consciousness is really like. Why? I experience what it is “really like” every day. The whole point of consciousness existing is that entirely new domains of being have opened up to natural life. Whether or not they have meaning is not up to science, we experience it every day. But the concept of a synchronicity is also squashed in this same view by “the law of large numbers” or statistical hand-waving. The physcialist view is fundamentally not curious about phenomenology.

    “But does it? For example, why can’t we attempt to use rich ways to describe phenomenology? (Even Tom Nagel spoke about this in his famous ‘What is it Like to be Bat?’ paper, and so has Dennett for that matter.) Granted, perhaps such an approach will never be able to convey perfect and complete information about all experiences to those missing certain experiential memories and who aren’t adept at consuming such phenomenological descriptions; and so perhaps there may not be a perfect and complete substitute for ‘knowledge by direct acquaintance’ (viz., being the actual subject of an experience) for many people. Still, I don’t see how a naturalistic explanation of consciousness “squashes and eliminates the full experience”. One can explain consciousness naturalistically and yet at the same time affirm that conscious experience is ‘like something’ to the individuals subjectively experiencing it – these are not mutually exclusive positions.”

    They argue that believing in both subjective experience and an explanation of that experience is not “mutually exclusive”, which is true, but this is deceptive – as they assert already that the experience of consciousness somehow tells us nothing about its true nature. Clearly, the explanation is supposed to squash the experience, or indicate that the experience itself contains no value unless verified by scientific endeavor. This is a mode of positivism.

    “I wouldn’t couch the capacity for apes like us to contemplate Gods as coding error, but I see what you’re trying to say. The same could be said about planes: What right does an ape (like us) have to contemplate planes? I mean, they weren’t a feature of our evolutionary history, ergo there were no selection pressures at all that made it so that our cognitive endowment needed to be such that their contemplation was possible. And yet…here we are, contemplating and even building such things (planes, that is). Our particular evolutionary history made our minds capable of contemplating such things all the same. That doesn’t make their contemplation deeply mysterious any more than that a bookend can be used as a doorstop; the design of the bookend can be co-opted to that other end, even though its original design had no such intended function by its designers. No mysteries there. Likewise: a highly flexible and highly interconnected mind, with capacities for meta-representation, inter alia, can be co-opted to ponder things that never existed during its evolutionary history, including things that it was never selected for by natural selection to ponder.”

    This is a complete and total dodge. Our “particular evolutionary history” is a stand-in for the causal physicalist explanation of subjectivity which does not exist, thus smart physicalists know they have to reason backwards to eliminate subjective consciousness as a serious notion.

    “What I sketched above about the cognitive endowment that natural selection produced in us should be enough to show why this is a false dichotomy (and a bit too rhetorical a framing for what should be treated as a scientific question, I should add).”

    This is a response to what is, in my view, one of the strongest possible arguments against reductionist materialism – why do apes understand the entire universe in principle unless we are some form of mathematical demi-God? There is no explanation for this whatsoever outside of Hermetic mythopoetry and “well, it just is, get over it”.

  20. NiceNihilism says

    There’s a lot in this article. It’s hard to respond to succinctly.

    We tell stories because it enhances our survival and propagation. There is evolutionary pressure on collective action and stories allow that to happen on an extremely large scale.

    Morality is built into us alongside cheating and devious behaviour. These points basically lay out the tightrope we walk — neither can ultimately reign (both are integral to evolution). We’re not perfect but our moral compass is deeply set within us. But we need laws (even so, Snowden, right?).

    Re: consciousness being an illusion. It depends what you mean. The problem is that we are deceived about our conscious experience and frequently lie about it. It’s not stable ground to stand on. Libet, Ramachandran, etc. The jury is still out on consciousness, which in my view very likely has illusion built into just as sex has pleasure built into it.

    I appreciated the end of this piece. As per Brett Weinstein — we can’t design the future; we must discover it.

  21. Rob G says

    In a purely molecular version of origins, the only true work of fiction is free will. Paradoxically, lowering confidence in the existence of free will has been shown to increase the likelihood of study participants engaging in bad behaviour – which suggests we do have the ability to choose and that moral constraints are essential to the fabric of a civilised society.

    Thus over the long run the benefits of the religious emphasis on free will and personal responsibility can and do add up, and can be statistically assessed – for one perspective see Harold G. Koeing’s monumental Handbook of Religion and Health. A short reading of history suggests the burdens that a lively conscience pose to the individual and on society as a whole are considerably lighter and more pleasant than any system of government that has sought to control it.

    While we can be grateful for anything that strengthens the conscience of the individual, we should note it has never been material in nature.

  22. ukcj4 says

    So this article is basically pining for the invention of a new materialist world religion with no metaphysical qualities or underpinnings in an age of skepticism and emerging scientism. Good luck with that, particularly trying to somehow top the religious options that are already in place.

    We seem to be in an age where the supposedly most “rational” of our intellectuals live their lives as if they are believers but think like atheists using underlying thought and language systems that are predicated fundamentally on belief. What I think is a fascinating challenge for the evolutionary, atheistic materialist is to even understand how we even leaped over the truth of our evolutionary, materialistic making and did so in such an incredibly short amount of time from an evolutionary standpoint.

    I mean, the greatest evolutionary leap has to seen as a consciousness that can pretend to transcend its own materialistic making and yet it happened in the blink of an eye evolutionarily speaking. I mean a blinking eye took much, much, much longer. I think at this point the evolution of the human mind has to be called something like light-speed, hyper evolution, right? And yet this clear fact goes largely unacknowledged by the evolutionary sciences and theorists which are much more comfortable trying to peer back to a time they cannot see rather than giving a cogent explanation for what they can see evolving right in front of their blinking eyes.

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