Thursday, January 19, 2012

This I Believe

by Richard Crews
Humans evolved (in the Darwinian sense) to get better and better at finding food and shelter, and avoiding and overcoming predators and environmental dangers. To solve these problems, we developed brains that have some particular kinds of strengths and some unavoidable weaknesses.

We are very good, for example, at using problem-solving strategies that involve imagining three-dimensional space, a steady progression of time, and cause-and-effect relationships. (This is best recognized in oneself by trying to imagine alternatives like four- or five-dimensional space--which we simply cannot do; or non-linear, discontinuous, cyclic time, or time with no beginning--also impossible for us; or factors that are close together temporally and spacially but are not causally related.)

So there are some mental skills we are good at. On the other hand, we are not good at recognizing our cognitive and perceptual limitations or our intrinsic philosophical biases. (We have all had the experience, for example, of seeing someone solve a problem we could not solve, or notice some things we had not perceived. And we have all heard people who seem sensible and reasonable espouse absurd beliefs--and we know that some of our beliefs seem absurd to others.)

An important part of our mental limitations is our blindness to our cultural biases and to semantic distortions. Part of our cultural heritage (built into each culture's child-rearing practices) is inculcation of the perspective that THIS (our culture's way of doing things) is the way things should be done and that other ways of doing things are wrong--bad, even evil. And the structure of a culture's languages tend to reinforce (and to hide) these biases.

One significant result of our particular, evolved mental equipment (and its limitations) is that life often is ("seems") frightening and painful. It is easy, on reflection, to see that these two attributes, fearfulness and painfulness, are useful (even life-saving) approaches to problem-solving.

Another result is humor (the juxtaposition of incompatible alternatives) and paradoxes (unanswerable questions). For example, the question of First Cause that has plagued religions from time immemorial ("If God made everything, where did God come from?") and the existential question, "Why does the Universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?" are unanswerable pseudo-questions that arise because of mistaken overreach of our cause-and-effect paradigm thinking. Cause-and-effect thinking evolved because it is a useful and powerful approach for solving certain problems; but it inclines us to ask certain pseudo-questions that do not represent solvable problems.

Yet another result of our brains' functioning is that mental rest, sleep, and meditative practices (including prayer) are calming and clarifying. Another is that moral tenets (such as "Thou shalt not kill" and "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you") serve to simplify complex situations.

Finally, because of our evolutionary environment and evolved brain functions, people need people. Life is safer and more comfortable when we coordinate our activities with others. Organized religions, for example, typically teach and encourage valuable meditative practices and moral tenets. True, these often go along with rituals that seem silly to outsiders but which, in fact, serve to strengthen a community's internal bonds. And since "Who are we?" so easily becomes "Not them," organized religions all too often become purveyors of bigotry. Finally, because the balance is hard to maintain between ritual and creativity and between identification with a group and exclusion of outsiders, organized religions often generate splinter extremism.