February 28, 2011
Epiphany at the Waterhole, Part Three
(Wherein we dump the obsolete Adam and Eve tale of the Advent of Consciousness for a more radical and contemporary one based on evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience.)
by Fred Zackel
“Something fell out of the mirror."
"Did you hold it upside down?"
"Did you shake it?"
"After I told you not to?"
"I got curious.”
We must congratulate ourselves. Name another animal capable of creating its own meaning for its existence and then imposing it on the universe. We might even be the ones who most delay their own extinction.
Are we there yet?
Our Divine is simply the most acceptable conceptual metaphor our limited minds can imagine and can cope with at this time. The nearest equivalent to our group mind consensus.
Our Divine is a snapshot of our conceptions of the Divine.
Ever-changing and always needed.
Usually the Divine just needs a tweak here and there. Generally we really don’t imagine the Divine any incrementally better than we did yesterday. But we can work with this business model better than other previously available ones.
Sometimes a new god comes to town.
Let us create a Cosmic Force, or rather customize our own Cosmic Force.
Revenge! (Yeah, I want some revenge.)
All monster movies are about revenge. A corollary must be that revenge makes us monsters. We watch monster movies to express the rage that we cannot get revenge for otherwise.
We let the monsters on stage so we can deal with the monsters of our own Id, those gnarly beasties we dare no unleash in real life. (And of course Dracula stands next to us in the mirror. That we cannot see Dracula means the only true monsters are our imaginations.)
Okay, okay. I said you could customize your own Cosmic Force and here I went and co-opted the darker sides of your imagination.
Let me do John Lennon one step better.
Let us open the Divine up. Let us have a contest.
Imagine a new divine. Base it on … “what we need today.” Not the worn-out dogmas that stifled and strangled our imaginations in the past few millennia. (The ones we most disagree with.) In 25 words or less …
“Imagine the Divine.”
Send your fancies to:
The Pope. Any Pope.
Winners get to design their own Afterlife. Yes, you can even imagine your own hell or your own heaven. Populate it with your favorite people or those who you really think belong in the bowels of hell. I know who’s going to my hell. OTOH, me and my cat Rugrat will meet in Heaven. (I got some explaining to do. He didn’t know that last trip to the vet’s was the last trip to the vet’s.)
After all this, what have I achieved?
I don't know what "God" means. Go ask theologians, religion scholars and deep thinkers to define God and I will bet each one will give us a different definition.
The Divine is an amorphous idea, like water taking the shape of its containers. It bleeds across the horizon, in all compass directions, ‘way beyond where we can see. By imagining what “God” means -- by gauging its range and domain, its significance, its implications, and its reverberations -- then we begin framing the borders of our behaviors.
Yet … all deities are vaguely familiar. They need to be universal, if not generic, if not Cosmic. The Divine can be a variety of Divines. Polytheism is not a problem but a solution. With polytheism, for instance, theodicy is no problem. We just say there’s another god at work.
Being Human, we (yes, all of us humans ever) desperately need a Divine for an infinity of reasons. Partly, to rationalize our insignificance in a vast dark cosmos. Most importantly, to superimpose PURPOSE on our lives.
The Herd tells us how to behave. Religion is the mayonnaise that binds the meat to the bread slices. It gives us a reason to believe, to trust the instincts of the Herd. (Any condiment works as well as mayonnaise, just as any religion binds us to our values and priorities.)
Our imagination produced the Divine. He has our image. He resembles us. We can do no better than that … being human. We stretched our imagination to its limits and even tried thinking beyond. (We have no way to measure our success, either.)
We invented the Divine to transform ourselves. It might not have been conscious, but it always was deliberate. It was selfish, but who else could we do this for, if not for ourselves? Being Human, we wobble between selfishness, self-absorption, and self-centeredness. (So much for our moral gyroscopes.)
Imagining God made us better people because we work better when we work together. Opening the heavens provided a foundation atop the muck and mud of animal desires. (Yes, we are still animals.) That it works as well as it does is what we should focus on. Consider how much worse we could be … and how often we have behaved worse in the past. Each day we are decent beings is a plus for our species. (And the rest of the organic world sighs in relief.)
Imagining the Divine is escaping our worst fears about ourselves. The Divine is always one quantum jump higher. We hope. So we reach. We do get better behaved. Collectively, anyway. Maybe even inevitably if we believe some evolutionary psychologists, although the pace may be glacial and, yes, we can slip back down the slope too easily.
One problem with gods is they end up being fallible. Our fault, of course. Our imaginations falter, can’t reach high enough into infinity or eternity. The gods crash, like my computer. (I blame Bill Gates for that.)
Think of a Divine as a language. A language does only what the culture needs. We coexist and encounter and interact and overlap, and we find the language evolves to what we need to say. And a vocabulary is tools and weapons for the future.
The ancient joke is that the Inuit of the Arctic Circle have 42 different words for snow. (All of which start with “goddamn.”) In truth, they do not. But all of us can conceive of how a large vocabulary for snow could evolve in that geography and climate, in that hazardous situation. Forty-two different words for snow might be necessary for survival above the Arctic Circle.
Through trial and error, the Divine is an ever-expanding vocabulary.
At the same time, the Divine is generally a story, a narrative that we can lose ourselves in, much like a dream. We imagine it, and for a time the universe makes a different kind of sense than when we are conscious and critical.
Divine stories do not make literal sense. These stories are always irrational. Scholars for instance pontificated for centuries on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
(I lied before. It takes two to tango. Can you see them?)
First we image Our Divines, the Divine then explains the inexplicable, our lives are good and meaningful for a while, and our shamans and priests come along and deconstruct that Divine with their dogma, and they even provide a storyline for the adults to explain to the kids.
Being Human, we had a ginormous number of reactions to the Divine.
Some of us become bashful facing the Divine. Or humble. Even pious.
Some of us found great satisfaction or drew great inspiration from the Divine. Some of us desire absolute submissiveness; the Divine can fill those needs, too. Some of us even seduce ourselves. We lust after God. But we will never catch Him. Being OCD, that’s fine.
For some of us, imagining the Divine means the Divine becomes a self-validating system of thought. How easy some of us embrace these fabricated perspectives. We take them to heart and to soul.
Along the way, some of us lose touch with reality. The Divine becomes magic dust and confuses us, distracts us, blinds us. Being human, we lie to ourselves more efficiently. Thanks to our fantasy POV, the Divine and our relationship with it are magnified and then glorified into His Undying Unconditional Love for us. Before we’re done, the Divine loves us as much as our dogs love us.
We own dogs and eat pigs. We eat pigs but pigs are smarter than dogs. But the dog is man’s best friend. Well, in our Western Civilization anyway. In the Middle East folks have for millennia noticed that pooches enjoy gnoshing on carcasses in the streets. Next time we see a dog food commercial where the dog gobbles it up, we should imagine that’s us being gnoshed.
One of my students once wrote a litany of personal beliefs, none of which I had ever read in a paper before. (What other word fits better than litany? Tirade?) Here is the conclusion:
God does not love us. If God loved us he would get too close to us and destroy us. He needs to keep this feeling at bay. This may be why some people do not love him. But, what they don’t understand is sometimes in certain circumstances if two things came together because of love they would ruin each other. It’s just like when two friends get too close and love each other, break up, and ruin the friendship they had. The relationship between God and man would be lost if he loved us. We need to love him for this reason. We need to love the fact that he is able to hold himself strong and not get too close to us. In doing so, he is saving us.
I hear a strong and powerful Voice at work, and I am mesmerized. This Voice may be the Voice of us Being Human. Not the only voice. Just the one we fear hearing the most. The one we deny until we face-down the abyss.
As I said, a Divine becomes a self-validating system of thought. Consider how easy some of us embrace these fabricated perspectives. We ignore or misinterpret the Divine. Some of us think the Divine supports and furthers our particular agenda. We use our self-derived sense of moral superiority to stifle what is inconvenient to our agenda. Sometimes what get stifled most is other people’s lives. You know, innocent souls.
Thanks to our imagining a Divine, some of us can go galumphing on and on, smug and condescending as a missionary, irritating the bejesus out of the rest of us. (I guess I’m revealing my opinion about missionaries, eh?)
Some clowns even think and act as if they are morally superior to the rest of us. They are of course dishonest and irrational, sometimes downright reprehensible. Their moral superiority will eventually be revealed as utter bankruptcy. In the meantime we try to be tolerant of those fools. We babysit them just as we babysit the testosterone bullies on our freeways. Moving aside so they can feel superior blasting down the road.
Some of us think fundamentalism is the only valid path or relationship to have with the Divine. Some of us got so loony that we demand blood revenge when we feel our Divine has been slighted or dissed. Those who disagree, we can always kill them as unbelievers, heretics, atheists, apostates, agnostics, Jews or (fill in the blank.)
In truth, if the Divine feels so offended, hey, It can take care of itself. (Trust me: that the Divine pulls Its punches comes from Its exercise of free will.)
Imagining the Divine gave too many of us a power that can sustain megalomaniac fantasies. We hijack our religions, hold them hostage and terrorize innocents with box cutters and suicide bombs. We trample others’ freedoms and liberties in the Name of Our Lord for our own self-interest. We cripple our young until they grow stilted shadowing our hatreds with new violence and shouting new crudities.
9/11 was just the tip of the iceberg, too.
We must not sail too close.
I think religion should wear a leash.
Imagining the Divine helps constitute what is our humanity.
The Divine is a synthesis of our abilities and disabilities, a woven cloth of our strengths and weaknesses, and a neon sign in the desert twilight of our preoccupations. We programmed our POV of the Divine. We created as dramatic a storyline as our imagination could … well … imagine. Our vanity is engine enough for all of our illusions or delusions, for all our miracles or mirages.
Imagine the Divine being indifferent to us. Well, that’s no fun. Although no outcomes would change. (One hopes no outcomes would change. Cross our fingers.)
Can we imagine the Divine repulsed by us? Perhaps we should go read Frankenstein again. The Doctor is repulsed by his own creation. Yes, the novel should have been named Frankenstein’s Monster. But our sympathies have difficulty extending to him. We know ourselves too well, it seems. (Monsters are our alter egos?)
Imagine a Divine (so repulsed by us) with a heart of stone over our shameful, sinful behaviors. Hey, we need a Divine to forgive us. (The great Greek poet C. F. Cavafy says the gods always acquit, which is not the same as forgive.) The Cosmos is cold chemicals if the Divine won’t forgive us. As we become more sophisticated, the more unnatural this Divine becomes. The more unnatural our relationship becomes, well, an unforgiving deity soon wears out Its welcome. We get tired of being under this microscope. Nothingness becomes better than an afterlife with a Divine who won’t forgive us.
Consider the Mayans who sacrificed humans for life-giving rain. Their priests are gone. So are their kings. And what happened to the Mayans themselves? Nothing. The population density of the Yucatan stayed about the same as before and even after the Mayan Empire.
The Mayan gods became unforgiving. Unresponsive and unsatisfied, they sent droughts instead of rain. During those extended droughts, the Mayan people voted “against” their religion with their feet. (That business model didn’t work anymore.) They just stopped going to temple. (Sounds familiar, eh?) The Mayans still live where they always lived. They changed their Divines. The Old Ones were useless; praying to them didn’t bring back the rain. Their priests got killed or fled in search of new jobs. (Now we know why our parish priest is always so jumpy.)
Dump the Old Divine.
Long live the New Divine.
My two cents says our ability to imagine a Divine is a direct outgrowth of our brain structure. Until we have proof, you will have to take my word on it. Have faith, my sons and daughters. (Whoa, I sound like a priest!)
Being Human, we have a theory of mind, which is the ability to project intent into other animals or even into inanimate objects. (That door has it in for me! Why else would it keep banging me when I got through it?)
We are the only critters on this planet aware of our own evolution. We evolved out of a desperate need to be more aware of our situation. We interpret behavior in others. How successful are we? How good are we? If we got it wrong, we might get eaten or dead.
Amusingly, imagining the Divine got a friendly goose early on with our primeval instinct to exaggerate. We distort images after we get bored with them, or we exaggerate what we find most attractive, or what will catch our attention most. The unusual, the anomalies catch our attention. What is unrealistic catches our attention.
Our need for a Divine says much about our psychological make-up.
The lioness hunts. She blends better with the beige savannah. The lion himself rules the pride. He stays home. His ladies like his mane for its masculinity. And size matters.
We spent millions of years out there on the cold savannah, listening with horror to predators and carnivores chewing and gnawing our kinfolk in the night. We heard our loved ones’ final screams and tried blocking them out.
Being lonely causes stress.
The Divine cares about our abilities and our disabilities.
Who else could we turn to? Who else could we call?
We in the West anthropomorphize Cosmic Forces because, well, we got lonely. So we imagined and invented a human-like Cosmic Agency and plopped it right into our situation and gave it dominion over us and the situation we are in.
We still do this. As individuals now who should know better, we mutter, “Dear God, help me find a parking space in this mall.” All we need is a parking space, yet we call in the Special Forces.
A Divine with a human-like personality solves our anxieties.
We feel good (better?) in the Divine Presence.
A Divine that is aware of us is flattering to us. Being Human, we love being flattered, even if by one of our creations.
Easier to attach ourselves to a Divine who is patient and sympathetic, who has a sensitive heart, as we have a sensitive heart to lower forms of life.
Our Divine must be sociable, too, but not like little old ladies or a batch of puppies. We don’t want an emasculated or effeminate Divine – except when we really need and want our mommies.
We fantasize about the Divine because our imagination gave us a leg up on the carnivores of the savannah. We could imagine the universe. Hey, my fellow neighbors on the savannah … Neener, neener, neener. I wrestle with God.
But in my heart of hearts I know He loves me.
Over time, we imagined the Divine as kin. Yes, the kinship between Human and Divine was created. And over time we became synchronized.
He (heart) me!
“Our Father, up in heaven, hallowed be thy Name …”
Our Divine will respond and answer our prayers. Those cues are life-like and thus they reinforce the illusions. The Divine helps define what constitutes Humanity.
OTOH, we abhor a Divine who would be as insensitive to us as we are to lower forms of life. Oops.
As our machines evolve in quantum jumps, as they gain their own “theory of mind,” will our computers, our robots fall in love with us (their creator) as we have fallen in love with our conceptions of the Divine? Will they fear us as we fear the divine? Will they be attached through affection and loyalty to us?
Better we should ask ourselves: Do animals believe in god?
Do elephants, dolphins and apes believe in a Divine? Personally I could not count that theory out. A capacity for empathy carries a lot of weight with me. I sense possibilities where I do not see evidence.
OTOH, no way do animals see us as Divine. Any animal with even rudimentary memory knows we are the devil. (Imagine their despair!) So who do they pray to for deliverance from us?
One definition of theory of mind is knowing the difference between sorrow and pity.
The real ultimate animal question really stings:
Can an animal pity us?
Posted by Frederick William Zackel at 12:03 AM | Permalink