“I used to think my brain was the most wonderful organ in the universe. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
(From a fictional exchange between two extraterrestrial intelligent machines, regarding the dominant life-form on Earth:)
“So…what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat.”
“Yes, thinking meat. Conscious meat!… The meat is the whole deal? Are you getting the picture?”
“They’re Made Out Of Meat,” quoted by Robert Burton, M.D. in his book
On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not. Story available at www.terrybisson.com/meat.html .
How the meat thinks — how mind emerges from neurons and neurotransmitters — is still a mystery, and one that won’t be solved anytime soon.
But at least we know where certain thoughts and emotions come from. It turns out that certain regions of the brain are responsible for what Burton calls “a feeling of knowing” without proof or empirical data.
This brain activity results in deja vu (mistaken feeling of familiarity), its evil twin jamais vu (mistaken feeling of strangeness), the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (”Wait! Don’t tell me - I know this.”), as well as all kinds of intuitive activity (sports, music performance, etc.) and, of course, religious faith, which would not exist if our minds were incapable of knowing without proof.
This feeling of knowing probably had evolutionary benefits — better to harbor suspicions than to be caught unawares. Today it’s almost ubiquitous in everyday life.
It is what enables major league batters to begin their swing when the ball is only nine feet from the pitcher. By the time they know they’re actually swinging (or think they’ve seen bat meet ball) the contact (or lack of it) has already happened. It’s what enables musicians, especially improvising musicians, to let go and do what they do. Contemplation of each movement is impossible — it’s all happening too fast.
The feeling is easily exploited. The Big Kahunas, when it comes to knowing without thinking, are marketing, politics, and religion. Here’s where the most wealth and power are at stake. All depend heavily on thoughtless knowing…on the creation of fake ideals and objects of worship.
All three present an exclusive and divisive world-view (we have the best product, the best country, the best god). All ask for loyalty, with an implied promise: If you buy the beer, OF COURSE you get the hot babe — that’s what the commercial says. Vote for the politician who says, “We can” and you can…what?
Needs you didn’t know you had
And, very importantly, all three create services for which there is no need, solutions to problems people didn’t know they had, gadgets they didn’t know they wanted. The sustained success of all three depends on that: you may not have known it, but you NEED Obama to fight for you, you NEED the Pope to intercede for you, you NEED tiny Oreos in tiny packages. You are pathetic and helpless.
And if you believe the Prez when he says, in his State of the Union speech, that he “won’t quit”…well, that’s all I needed to hear. My response: Barack, PLEASE quit. I LOVE politicians who quit trying to control my life while they bail out their rich friends with my money. But there’s no such animal.
Let’s see, $787 billion (the amount of federal bailout) distributed among 300 million people is $2,600 for every American. Just give us back our money. We’ll spend it or save it, benefiting the economy either way. I don’t NEED politicians fighting for me. Stop fighting whatever it is you’re fighting, i.e., other politicians who have different plans for controlling my life.
I now have a better understanding of why religion is so deeply rooted in the mind. Burton deals with this issue too, in his most ambitious — but most confused — chapter on faith, which he equates with a sense of knowing — in this case, knowing meaning and purpose. More on that in a future post.
He says you can go in either of two directions with your feeling of knowing: science or religion. He chides Richard Dawkins for his evangelical fervor, concluding that Dawkins’ answer to what constitutes a meaningful life is as much a matter of the feeling of knowing as faith and prayer are for a priest, rabbi, or imam. You have the feeling first, then you gather support. As Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen said, “Verdict first — then the evidence.”
That’s how the mind seems to work. Dawkins’ “choice” about what gives his life purpose and meaning is no more valid than the rabbi’s.
Science and religion are not equal.
I think not. Burton is WAY too easy on religion. He ignores the degree to which believers must deny reality and invest themselves in outrageous fantasies for which there is no evidence. Once you establish that you can believe one thing without proof, then you can believe anything. Fantasies flower, enveloping the believer’s entire waking life with ritual and observance, if one is so inclined.
And such is the social respect for religion that a Jewish believer is not ashamed to don phylacteries in public (most recently on an airliner, triggering terrorist fears — who knows what’s in those boxes?), without (well-deserved) ridicule. So low is the bar for what passes as "reality" that one is not ashamed to take money for homeopathy and past life regression.
Now, I have nothing against fantasies, as loing as they’re not mistaken for reality — and as long as believers keep it out of public view and not coerce or persecute those who are different…or try to take over societies and control education, which they are always trying to do, because these are the ways to keep conflicting beliefs away from the flock, so that they can go on believing without proof.
Burton gives religion a generous pass on its behavior. Crusades, Inquisitions, jihads, witch trials, suicide bombers…these are most certainly NOT equivalent to the outputs of Dawkins’ beliefs: inquiry, knowledge, reasoned argument, and understanding of human beings and the universe.
Unlike politicians, marketers, and clerics, Dawkins doesn’t try to give people answers to problems they didn’t know they had.
Why religion persists
The inescapable conclusion is that for reasons social, ethnic, and neurological, the capacity for religious belief (and that includes New Age sewage) will be encouraged, indeed relentlessly programmed from a very early age. It becomes a habit of mind.
A lucky few of us escape. It doesn’t really take much. When my Mom would thank God and babble about God’s will, my father would cut her off with “What’s God got to do with it?” All he had to do was ask the question. That — plus a lack of serious indoctrination (we were wishy-washy Jews) — was enough to trigger my skepticism, which can usually override my belief without proof, although I’m still capable of intuitive activity (jazz improvisation) that goes by too fast for conscious thought.
A Modest Proposal
In a future post, I’ll deal with religion’s products-you-didn’t-know-you-needed: forgiveness, salvation, absolution, and answers to Big Questions. For now, given that religion is ineradicable and the progress of secular humanism is glacial even in this supposedly enlightened land of ours, we can do one thing which would be equivalent to ending racial segregation.
It would recognize that religion is nothing special where Caesar is concerned. It would have immense symbolic and economic repercussions (and help with the deficit).
Two words: Tax religion.
As we pursue complete separation of church and state, here’s one positive thing humanists can do: Make them pay the same taxes as the rest of us. In hundreds of leafy suburbs across this great land, churches and synagogues sit on VERY pricey real estate. Why should I subsidize their primitive rites with my tax dollars? Let’s also tax their bake sales and every other revenue stream. George Carlin observed that for an omnipotent deity, God always seems to have a problem with money — he’s always asking for it. But I’m sure he’ll come through with the extra cash, if believers just pray hard enough.
Where are the laws that give religon a free pass economically? Is any secular organization working on this? Is there any politician willing to take on this issue?
If religion is perpetual, let it pay its own way — perpetually.