Everything I Believe about Religion III: The Personal Turn
Just how close do I get to religion? Let me tell you. Travis Thornton writes:
I read that you have never experienced a relationship with a deity. From what you have written in the past, I don’t think that’s true. Last week I heard that the whole of philosophy boils down to one thing: Love. Love is the unexplained element in life. When people talk about finding God, or seeing God, I think what they mean is the experience of “sensing a love beyond reason,” and unconditional love. Love is the source for our sense of morality, in the way we interact with others of course, but even with the way we interact with ourselves… Is love an illusion? Feel free to interchange the words “Love” and “God” in this paragraph to see what I mean; you’re on your way to a sermon.
If God is love, then I have experienced God, because I’ve clearly experienced love.
I have likewise experienced the deep urge that entropy should have no bite: Let us be eternal, already, because we appear to be the only entities in the universe who would deserve it. Or to whom it would make the slightest bit of difference: Why are electrons eternal, and not humans? Why must there be an end of me? Why must there be a last human being? The very thought of it is an obscenity.
Sometimes, I really really hate that all there is is just atoms and the void. I want an Ubik — I want the preserving grace, the anti-entropy, the remedy for death.
I’m pretty sure that I desire the Ubik in exactly the same way that believers do. Only I have never experienced it, and I don’t believe that it exists. There is no Ubik. We are all going to die, and one day, we are all going to be forgotten. And the same goes for everything we love. All of it marches steadily to the void.
We can entertain ourselves in the meantime, and it is right that we should. When we do, all sorts of meaningful questions open up. A finite life need not be senseless. Still, I do really wish I had some Ubik.
In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer writes:
[Humans] practice what I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. That is, we often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of the bottom-up causal laws and randomness that make up so much of our world. Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world… [p 87]
We practice agenticity because evolution has adapted us to do so: When bands of proto-humans first developed consciousness, it became imperative also for them to develop a theory of mind — an understanding that other entities possessed minds more or less like their own, minds whose reactions could at least potentially be predicted. Making successful predictions about the minds of others became more and more important as these others were guided less and less by instinct, and more and more by ideas.
Theory of mind was thus a damn good evolutionary trick. It allowed humans to develop concepts that have remained with us ever since, including family, language, morality, justice, obligation, property, and trade. The ability to act more or less consistently on the inferred content of other people’s minds is one of the things that appears to separate us from the animals. Where animals sometimes seem to show flashes of a theory of mind, we do it habitually. We recognize as unwell all those whose theory of mind consistently fails.
Theory of mind allows humans to be both social and flexible about sociality. Many animals are solitary except for reproduction. Others exhibit a highly organized sociality, but they are almost completely incapable of adapting the set pattern that biology has given them. Humans are among the very few social animals who exhibit multiple patterns of sociality, and I do think both that this versatility has been one of our strengths as a species and that it comes to us thanks to our highly developed ability to infer the presence of other minds.
Evolution, though, does not appear to have set any limits whatsoever on our ability to infer the existence of minds, even when no minds exist. As a result, we clearly do it to excess. Prescientific humans have seen Mind in the winds and the waters, in birth and death, in the corn and the locusts.
Given that they had society — the good trick that ensured the trait’s survival — these other inferred minds hardly mattered much. It wasn’t as if any better explanations were on hand for natural phenomena. And sometimes inferring a mind actually did offer a useful reminder: Plant your crops on time, the ancient Greeks knew. Recall the abduction of Persephone.
To those who say that God is love, or that God supplies an Ubik, I must reply with the evolutionary account. We see love. We see that there is a pattern to it. We infer all too easily a mind behind the pattern. We desire an Ubik. We understand that life would be better if it existed. We infer a Person who would supply it. All too easily. God is a trick that we have played, beautifully, unwittingly, upon ourselves.
“There is a person behind this” serves as a human’s first explanation for nearly everything.
I observe, though, that whenever a competing explanation is even barely able to pass the weakest tests that we set for it, we readily welcome it in. We then discard the earlier, person-based explanation: Long before the germ theory of disease was well-established, Europeans had begun discarding the idea that God personally ordained each of the plagues that they periodically suffered.
Were bad smells to blame for malaria? It is an explanation, even if it’s a totally wrong one. And, as an explanation, it did pass certain tests: Places free from the stink were often free from the disease named after it.
And that’s all it takes to banish agenticity from our explanations! It doesn’t matter that mosquitoes transmit malaria. We don’t need the right explanation, or even a good explanation. We just need a not wholly implausible explanation, and when we have it, we will readily set aside the Mind. To explain something by saying God did it is thus a lot like farting in public: We mostly try not to, even if our animal bodies really, really want us to.
 Or perhaps I haven’t experienced love. It’s a topic I’ve covered in the past. How, after all, would I know? “When it happens, you’ll know it” sits badly with a philosophical skeptic like me, who often must be exceedingly modest about the claims to similarity between his mind and those of others. Asking how I will know love immediately outs me as someone who doesn’t know love yet, although this sort of summary judgment does seem more than a little unfair.