The Enlightened Caveman


Hope, Despair, and the Need to Believe – An Argument for Reason
January 7, 2005, 4:21 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Philosophy, Science

Original Post (with comments)
I want to follow up on a comment about the post from two days ago. Michael Gersh (of Zero Base Thinking fame), has this to say about the opinions of many of secularists who come off more as anti-religious than agnostic:

Maybe I have missed something here, but isn’t religion, or at least the need to believe in that which we have no logical answer for, hard wired into the human brain, by the same forces of evolution that shaped the rest of our ouvre? Smug secularists posting here might believe themselves to be above this basic human need, but I think that this is a distinction without a difference. While many so-called rationalists might disbelieve the Bible’s miracles, they merely believe in something else. Maybe global warming, or other environmental belief, that Michael Crichton has so presciently perceived as akin to religious belief. Maybe it is some sort of overreliance of other human constructs, such as the social contract, or even the supremacy of rationality itself.

None of us are immune to this human tendency to believe in some specific explanation for an essentially unknown, and perhaps unknowable condition.

I don’t think we necessarily have an inherent need to believe in the inexplicable so much as we have a hard-wired need to explain our environment, if for no other reason than to connect cause with effect. Before we can associate a certain set of conditions with a certain outcome, we have to be able to identify and categorize what we perceive. If a caveman witnesses the mauling of a fellow tribesman by a lion, his mind notes the existence of a furry and ferocious entity. It then categorizes it as an entity that can kill humans. The next time he sees one, even if it looks a little different (perhaps it’s female and the first was a male), he will generalize that he is in danger. This is key mental adaptation for survival, one that is well distributed throughout the animal kingdom. But with humans, there is a layer of cognition that does not come installed in the brains of our animal brethren. This is where the belief problem comes from.

In my view, non-human animals, though driven by emotion, are supremely rational in their perception of their environment – water is wet, always. They cannot be otherwise. Humans, however, have the free will to choose to interpret their world irrationally. A human can decide that a cobra is not dangerous, even when his animal emotions drive him to act as if is. Though this free will undoubtedly serves us well, it has a downside. We can fall victim to false hope.

In a paper called, “The Evolution of Hope and Despair,” University of Michigan professor of psychiatry and psychology, Randolph Nesse, lays out the idea that hope and despair are simply emotions driven by our appraisals of whether or not our environment will favor or disfavor the realization of our goals. Like other emotions, they serve to drive us to do things that will keep us alive long enough to reproduce. They are sort of the uber-assessors of our surroundings. If we find ourselves in circumstances that bode well for us, we have hope, so we stick around. Alternatively, if our circumstances look grim, we feel despair, which pushes us to change our situation. But what happens when we cannot explain our environment? What happens when we have no categories for the phenomena we witness?

As an absurd example, suppose a caveman stumbles upon a spaceship. Neither he nor any of his tribesmen have ever seen anything even remotely like it, so they are perplexed, to say the least. But uncertainty does not make for decisive action, which, in harsh times, is an utter necessity. Indeed, in a heated competition for survival, prolonged contemplation of the unknown is often a grave mistake. Conclusions must be drawn so that decisions can be made. The human mind, given the choice between choosing an explanation for the unknown, even if it’s a bad one, and choosing to leave the matter unsettled, will, therefore, choose an explanation. But how?

Our rational animal perceptions will provide us with competing explanations for what we observe. Then, we will decide which one to believe – by choosing the one that offers the most hope. Just as we’re emotionally drawn to situations that give us the warm, fuzzy feeling in our stomachs, so are we drawn to hopeful situations. So, while I’m not prepared to say that we have inherent need to believe in irrational things, I will say that our need to explain our world coupled with our attraction to hopeful situations sets us up to fall victim to irrationalism, and not just with respect to religion.

The lottery is one of the ultimate examples of false hope. We’ve all seen poor people in line at convenience stores spending money that would more intelligently be spent elsewhere on scores of quick picks and scratch-off games. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say, “When I win the lottery, I’m going to…..” Now, it’s one thing to say this in jest; it’s quite another to believe it. Many people really do, and this is a shame because I am convinced that this false hope removes much of the necessity to recognize reality for what it is and to act accordingly.
It is a fact of life that many people are born into terrible circumstances. Those who rise above them are the ones who see and accept their plight for what it is. This acceptance is the first step in determining how to overcome whatever impedes their achievement of their aims. False hope blurs reality and fosters inaction, or worse yet, useless action. The same is true of irrationality.

I think there are two types of secularists – the ones who apply rationality to all things, including religion, and the ones who happen to be rational about religion, but have no particular allegiance to it in other matters. I am one of the former. Michael, I think the smug secularists you refer to would find themselves among the latter. In any case, there is one staggeringly straight forward fix for the problems that come from the need to explain and the attraction to hope. It is called critical rationalism.

We start by admitting that we can be certain about nothing. Nothing. Then, we decide to put everything into one of three categories – things we believe, things we do not believe, and things we choose to leave unsettled. To determine what we believe and what we do not believe, we demand evidence, and we favor evidence that disproves assertions over evidence that proves assertions (since we can never really prove anything). We weigh the evidence for possible explanations and decide what to believe and disbelieve, and when the evidence is not compelling one way or another, we abstain. We are not cavemen, which means ambiguity is not dangerous for us. We do not have to act or die. This means that we can (and must) become comfortable with uncertainty. If we are successful at being critically rational, we are immuned from the perils of false hope and irrationality. But rationalism for the hope-addicted mind does not always come easy.

At the end of the day, each of us must decide how we will think. If we do not, we will vacillate opportunistically between rationality and irrationality – invoking either one based upon personal convenience. But deciding to be rational at all times is like deciding to be nice all the time. It’s an aim, an intention. We will, from time to time, falter. However, as long as we recognize the value of rationality, we will get back up and keep moving forward. That’s life. It’s best if we focus on our own journey and leave the arrogance to the certain, who always learn sooner or later that nothing is certain.

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