Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Against Self-Importance [Updated 12/18]

Humankind's pronounced predisposition to self-importance, bordering on haughty arrogance, leaves me with some combination of bafflement at our childlike taste for palatable delusion, frustration with our seeming inability to reason beyond it and weary resignation to our current solipsistic (in the sense of being characterized by extreme egocentrism) stance. Certainly, almost every successive discovery that is won through diligent scientific effort bespeaks the wondrousness of the world as we know it and the humbling majesty of the small planet on which we live. One need only consult the exciting developments emerging in disciplines ranging from biology to cosmology, chemistry to astrophysics, and paleontology to geophysics. However, our compounding and expanding scientific understanding only serves to testify to a universe far larger and grander than we will ever experience, and one in which we play such an infinitesimal role that we charitably could be said to have essentially no significance.

As a regular reader of my writing might expect, I believe the institution of religion is the principal cause of the delusive idea that humans, either as individuals or as a species, hold some special significance. And, for clarity, I speak not only of significance exceeding that of other animals but, in fact, of any cosmic-scale significance whatsoever. From extremely early childhood, those of us raised with religious inculcation are told that we are children of god, created in his glorious image, and cared for and loved by him. Moreover, we are told that god is deeply concerned with our thoughts and actions, down to the trivial and the mundane, and that he is comprehensively aware of what we, as individuals, do. If the intellectual cancer of creationism is grafted onto, or simply replaces, our scientific education, we might well be led to believe that the universe, our planet in it and we on that planet were literally and supernaturally created, making us, by extension, godly objects.

All of this is to say that, in youth, our intellectual development is so minimal that we have no defense against attractive delusion that is presented as fact by those whom we trust. If, in childhood, the fangs of religious indoctrination are plunged deeply into our bodies, pumping their unique brand of sweet-smelling toxin, we are likely to grow to be adults whose brains are hopelessly addled by nonsense. Recognizing religion as the robust, well-adapted phenomenon that it is, one cannot help but to approach it in Darwinian fashion in an attempt to understand why it is so pervasive. That religion, in general, promises an afterlife following earthly death certainly contributes to its appeal, inasmuch as the prospect of nonexistence seems to frighten and disturb most of us. In religion, many people also find not only solace and comfort but meaning and inspiration, too. For these people, god and religion, to some extent, provide life with an overarching purpose, without which, presumably, they would feel adrift. Religion also feeds into our innate egocentrism, inasmuch as many of us like to feel loved (especially by a supreme being!) and to believe that our actions, for better or worse, reverberate beyond our minuscule little sphere.

Although religion might well be the vehicle through which human self-importance most frequently reveals itself, and I certainly would contend that it exacerbates and magnifies whatever predisposition toward egocentrism people might have, it definitely is not the only way in which this mental distortion becomes manifest. And I would be dishonest to say that I, myself, do not fall victim frequently to variants of this selfsame delusion. I suffer from an extreme susceptibility to the rose-colored visions of pure, undying romance that have permeated cinema for decades and that are so frequently echoed in sappy love songs, causing me to be sucked into ideas such as "soul mates." By that, I mean two people who, among the nearly 7 billion who populate this planet, are romantically meant for each other to the exclusion of all other possible couplings. The problem with such ideas is the unanswered, and seemingly unanswerable, question: "Meant for each other" by whom? And even granting the possibility that there were an individual, among the billions of people on our planet, for whom you were personally meant, it seems rather silly to think that you would find that individual.

And let us not neglect to mention those old canards that it is sometimes just a person's "time to go" or that, if something happens, "it was meant to." One sometimes hears things similar to the former when a tragedy befalls somebody, such as, for instance, when a plane crash kills a happy young couple. Perhaps more to the point, somebody might say it was a young daredevil's "time to go" if he were to plunge to his death while mountain climbing. The apparent implication of this is that, if the daredevil were to have stayed home and watched television that day, some other accident would have offed him. Turning to the latter phrase, "it was meant to happen," I view it largely as a mental illusion one conjures to absolve oneself of blame and emancipate oneself from regret over an unwelcome development in one's life. That is, it involves believing that something was preordained, thereby allowing one to embrace the comforting notion that, no matter what choices had been made, the outcome would have been the same. The problems here are identical to the one previously identified: If one has a "time to go," by whom is it determined? If something "was meant to happen," to whom can we credit the planning?

These generally secular forms of self-importance might seem meaningfully different from those characterizing religious practice. For instance, freethinkers recognize that prayer is a useless exercise that is undertaken by those who, in a fit of childish delusion, believe they can effect change in the real world by falling to their knees and murmuring to themselves, all the while thinking they are communicating with the creator of the universe. However, whether secular or religious, all variants tie together inasmuch as they are part of a fallacious-idea web wherein humans are significant, subjects of a plan, qualitatively different from other life forms and imbued with a nebulous "special something." It seems that there is insufficiently abundant comfort, purpose, meaning, ego stroking and reassurance in the harsh light of science, leading many to crawl back to the cool, dark territory of unreason, like bugs beneath a stone.

From what, exactly, does the majority seek comfort? I argue that the answer is our proper place in a vast universe. The age of the universe--of which our solar system (as well as our entire galaxy) is the tiniest sliver--is 13.75 billion years, with an uncertainty of 0.17 billion years. The age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years, with an uncertainty of one percent. Modern forms of Homo sapiens first emerged on the scene about 195,000 years ago. Looking at these dates in context, we can say that humanlike creatures have been around less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history. With a clearheaded comprehension of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, we understand that human beings happen to have evolved. We certainly were not bound to evolve, nor is evolution an efficacious stepladder that was designed to reach the heights of humankind, nor is humankind the "final product" toward which everything has been building. Furthermore, Darwinian evolution knows of only one Tree of Life, and we exist as part of, rather than standing apart from, that multiply branched tree.

Finally, we also know that that which lives eventually will die and, despite a great deal of wishful thinking of both an explicitly religious and vaguely spiritual nature, there is literally no persuasive evidence to support the contention of an afterlife. The evidence, it turns out, is to the contrary. In God: The Failed Hypothesis--How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, Victor Stenger writes, "We have seen that neurological and medical evidence strongly indicates that our memories, emotions, thoughts and, indeed, our very personalities reside in the physical particles of the brain or, more precisely, in the ways those particles interact. So this would seem to say that when our brains die, we die." Perhaps it is upsetting to accept, but the simple fact remains that each of us will die. There will come a day, whether distant or close at hand, when each of us will be but a cold, lifeless body, lying in a morgue or funeral parlor, or on a medical examiner's slab. Makeup and powder will be applied to our faces, our best clothes will be draped on our corpses and we will be injected with chemicals to forestall the process through which each of us will decompose...until we become nothing at all.

If one adheres to Christian dogma, quite a bit of the preceding discussion might be questioned or flatly denied. I recognize that, if one is a bible-believing Christian, one is fully entitled, if not outright obligated, to believe in the intrinsic specialness of humankind and our species' cosmic, enduring importance. That one's false superstition compels such beliefs, though, does not prevent me from pointing out that Christianity amplifies, distorts and exacerbates delusive self-importance, a condition that is well recognized if only partially understood. I see no particular reason to relitigate all the issues that I, and many others, have already discussed, such as the ludicrousness of prayer, the many frailties of Christianity and the profound weakness of the design hypothesis, but I do think it is worthwhile to reiterate the principal reason why I am not, and intellectually cannot be, a Christian. Quite simply, to subscribe to Christianity, one must believe that a god who, in barbarous and ignorant times, was eminently clear, present and active suddenly, upon the emergence of a scientific understanding of the natural order, became a silent, inert sluggard whose presence can only be discerned in the most obscure, skepticism-baiting ways. The Israelites had precious little need for abstruse philosophical prestidigitation like the Transcendental Argument.

Whether it is the seemingly endless succession of people predicting the end of the world in their puny, insignificant lifetimes, the thoroughly irrational masses who are convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime before they, themselves, would die off, or the people who foolishly pretend that Earth holds a place of significance in an observable universe that is estimated to measure 93 billion light-years in diameter, humans habitually betray a breathtaking ego that is completely unwarranted by the evidence. If one wishes to think and, as a result, behave in accordance with truth (as best as it has been currently ascertained), one should recognize that, qualitatively, we are no different from any other evolved creature, our current perch atop the animal kingdom notwithstanding. And if one requires meaning of some kind to persist in life, one must invent such meaning for oneself.

Because just as surely as there is no objective, prescriptive moral code weaved into the fabric of the cosmos, nor any god above, below or anywhere else to love, supervise, create or punish, there is no purpose to life, to humans, or to you or to me apart from whichever one we invent. And as much as we might like to believe we are a grand, towering thing of a sort that only a deity could assemble, the truth is contrary: We are the accidental product, among millions and millions of others, of a Darwinian trial-and-error process. Most importantly, the universe did not notice our arrival and does not notice our persistence; it will not notice our eventual, inevitable extinction and shall not remember our follies.


Blogger Tommykey said...

This deserves a thumbs up simply for the use of the word "prestidigitation". It almost sounds like a medical disorder, like being born with an extra finger or toe.

My (somewhat clumsy)catch-all term for what you describe in this post is "human egocentrism." So much of religious expression manifests itself in this way. From the relatively harmless belief some people have that God is like some non-judgemental BFF who they can always talk to when their feeling down, to the other end of the spectrum, where we are so gosh darn important in this universe filled with billions of galaxies that the forces of good and evil literally struggle against each other through us.

In the one corner, we have God and the angels, imploring us to follow God's commandments so that we can achieve a heavenly reward. In the other corner, Satan and his demons, whispering in our ears, telling us "Go ahead, do that line of coke. Cheat on your spouse. Jerk off to that picture of Kim Kardashian. Steal that old lady's purse."

I was reading a while back about one of those Quiverfull women who was talking about cranking out the babies so they can swell the ranks of God's army. Right, a being powerful enough to create this vast universe needs human beings to serve in its army. Talk about overinflating our importance.

1:26 PM EST  
Blogger in the vanguard said...

I beg to differ with you on a premise you start out with, namely,
"I believe the principal cause of the delusive idea that humans, either as individuals or as a species, hold some special significance--and I speak not only of significance exceeding that of other animals but, indeed, of any cosmic-scale significance at all--is the institution of religion."

Assume, only for this moment, the world has A Creator. Assume too, for this moment - hold your breath if you have to - that The Creator "creates man in His image".

What this means is that man has branded into his feature-set:
1) The feeling that he is the only one there really is; And
2) The feeling that he can create something.

This is why, after you present the well-appreciated beauty that exists in Nature, I then part ways with you because I believe there IS the artist that created this near-perfect world (leaving something for mankind to accomplish - otherwise why put us here on earth in the first place?), whereas, according to you, were you to come across a beautiful painting in a desert, you'd think that billions of years of evolution took that picture to its beauty.

2:32 PM EST  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

I believe the creator hypothesis is fraught with problems, ranging from relatively minor to crippling.

First, in what manner, exactly, did the creator create the world and humankind? Do you propose a universe that is 6000-some years old? If so, I cannot join you on that path, because it is scientifically indefensible. Do you propose special creation of humankind, as opposed to Darwinian evolution? If so, I cannot join you on that path, because it, too, is scientifically untenable.

For the sake of argument, let us assume you acknowledge that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, Earth is 4.54 billion years old and humankind, in something approaching modern forms, is around 200,000 years old. Let us assume you concede universal common descent, and humanity’s place on the Darwinian Tree of Life.

Assuming all this, how can you assign such seemingly random importance to humans? Science has allowed us to discover that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy--a large percentage of them with planetary systems--and hundreds of billions of galaxies. We are one species, which is less than 200,000 years old, populating one planet, which orbits a fairly ordinary star, which is but a single star in a massive galaxy, which itself is a mere speck among the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, which itself might be one of the near-infinite number of universes suggested by quantum mechanics. From whence comes this incredible importance associated with humans?

Additionally, if you posit a creator of the universe and of humankind, you aggravate the challenge of explaining things. Any deity that is sufficiently creative and intelligent to design a universe or a human being is also sufficiently creative and intelligent to require its own explanation. To give no explanation is simply to accept unexplained organized complexity, which is the very thing we are trying to explain away.

4:23 PM EST  

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