Inspired by my post last night about A Secular Ten Non-Commandments, and the book’s invitation to generate one’s own set of beliefs, I sat down today to write out my own response… not of *commandments* (who am I, or anyone, to command anyone else to do anything?), or even of “beliefs” – because a ‘belief’ is a commitment to a proposition about reality that is immune from further evidence or discussion. No; instead, I have written up a set of “provisional conclusions” about life, the universe, and everything, based on my experience in life and reading about science and faith and religion, honestly trying to understand the various viewpoints and their bases for their claims, and what I’ve concluded to be true, as far as I can perceive.
All my posts on this blog, or most of them anyway, fit into this context of these provisional conclusions, on these ten points.
- All supernatural phenomena – including gods, ghosts, angels, demons, devils, spirits, souls, telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, faeries, elves, and so on, as well as religious concepts such as heaven, hell, prophets, messiahs, chosen people, sin, karma, and reincarnation – are projections of human behavior and human motivations onto an indifferent, inanimate universe. They are not real, except as concepts in the minds of their adherents.
- The actual universe is vast in size, age, and scale, in ways barely comprehensible, even intellectually, to human beings. Most human beings are both unaware of this vastness, and of the minute portion of this vastness that human existence spans.
- The human species’ understanding of itself and the world has been honed by natural selection to maximize the perpetuation of the species, including the incentive to prioritize one’s own social group over others, in ways that are not necessarily optimized for perceiving and understanding the real world. Thus, many things people believe about themselves, and about the world, have turned out to be false upon rigorous examination. Increasingly, ‘common sense’ turns out to mislead more often than not.
At the same time, the ways in which humans have expressed their perception of the world, through art, music, story-telling, architecture, cuisine, and so on, have generated vastly rich cultures, many of them throughout history independent of one another, that have enhanced and continue to enhance human existence, and to fulfill countless lives — even while nevertheless being constrained to the tiny slices of perception that human existence is constrained to.
- Traditions, including the religious deference to holy books and the political allegiance to ideological states, provide narratives about the meaning of human life that function to strengthen families and social groups small and large, from tribes to nations, at least to the extent that these narratives do not directly conflict with the real world in a way that impacts human survival. (For example, understanding of evolution or the vastness of the universe doesn’t matter much to everyday life, but disbelief in modern medicine, such as the efficacy of vaccines or of blood transfusions, might well lead to premature death. Communities committed to denying these propositions are at a disadvantage, in the long run.) Thus, most people find these narratives far more important than evidence about the real world; and these narratives are so powerful, their adherents *cannot change their minds* about their implications, even in the face of explicit evidence to the contrary.
These narratives, that emphasize the superiority of one’s social group over all others, are manifest in human psychology, religions, patriotism, and competitions including sports. And they tend to be the most important things in most people’s lives, in ways that cannot be easily dismissed. Even when you suspect that those who adhere to such narratives are smart enough to understand that it’s not about the claim that other narratives are untrue; it’s about the utility of such narratives to unify a social group, a community, that strengthens social bonds and promotes the happiness, and survival, of the group.
This preference for narrative explains many things, from the interpretation of near-death hallucinations to the shouting down of critics of historical and science fiction movies who point out factual errors: “It’s just a story!” – because story is so much more important than reality.
And, for that matter, to the interpretation of any single life, which for many people is about having children and raising them to adulthood, after which, all things considered, the end of life is not such a bad thing, considering it has to happen eventually anyway. As long as the story of raising the next generation has been completed, the end is almost fitting.
- An arc of human history has been a gradual shift between allegiance to immediate social groups to larger social groups that include more and more people previously demonized as ‘the other’. That is, the recognition of the common humanity of former slaves, of women, of other ‘racial’ and ethnic groups, of sexual minorities, and even of those who adhere to minority narratives.
This shift has been an historical tension between those who would ‘progress’, expand options and expand the parameters of the social group, and those who resist any change that might disadvantage them and those most like themselves. The former are typically described as ‘liberals’; the latter, as ‘conservatives’. That the trend of human history has nevertheless been progressive, such that conservatives in any era accept propositions that would have been unthinkable a generation or two before, suggests that conservatives do change over time, but only 50 years or so behind the liberals. Thus conservatism is relative.
And thus, ‘progress’, the expansion of options, and the gradual rejection of practices of ancient human cultures once common but now considered barbaric (slavery, sacrifice of children to appease the gods, etc.) is generally a liberal project, modulated by conservative resistance. The balance of progress vs conservative resistance worked out to minimize the impact on individual lives, but over the past few centuries, the pace of change has been rapid enough that it is apparent even within individual lives (thus the emergence of science fiction), and the change over the past several generations has been astonishing.
- Another arc of human history has been toward a greater understanding of the real world, and the subsequent benefits of that understanding through manipulation of that world through science and technology. Thus our species now dominates the planet in a way unprecedented in history.
- Resistance to these historic trends is driven by subconscious, evolutionary-grounded desires to maintain social cohesion among one’s group against threats that might undermine the group’s religious or ideological narrative. Such resistance ranges from political isolation (e.g. North Korea) to religious inculcation of children by parents around the world. Daily evidence of such resistance is provided by numerous right-wing, religious fundamentalist pundits.
- Thus another trend of human history is the persistence of conflict between different religious and ideological groups, as they inevitably come into contact with one other and their competing narratives, and their need to feel superior, which are quickly seen to be mutually inconsistent. Resistance and tribal loyalty will always endure, but the stakes, over time, will gradually, necessarily, reduce in scope; thus, e.g., political parties in the US do not demonize each other as heathens who deserve death, as tribal groups around the world, over previous millennia, have typically done. While there will always be conflict between the educated and the naive — elites vs common folk — since naive human motivations exhibit base human nature, and lack of education is the basic human condition, unless addressed, the points of political contention in future decades and centuries will become more and more issues of cultural taste.
- The benefits of these trends will be the expanding potential for humanity to explore and comprehend the universe in a way that vastly supersedes the priorities of mere human existence. In this sense, the sum of human awareness will be a consciousness of the universe that extends beyond the survival protocols of a single species.
Science fiction, at its best, explores the many ways this might happen; it is a heuristic for understanding why any one person’s experience of the world, or perception of reality, is not necessarily the only possible one, let alone the best.
- In the event of any kind of species ‘reset’ – e.g. a worldwide catastrophe that reduces human survivors to the state of primitive humankind of thousands of years ago, or of a small group of humans stranded out of contact with civilization – all progress described in the previous items would vanish, and humankind would be left only with the evolutionary motivations given toward tribalism, the value of narratives over evidence, and the susceptibility toward supernatural perceptions, that preceded them – i.e., baseline human nature.
Eventually, such a rebooted segment of humanity would create a new culture, would create new religions, new art, new music, new literature — all unlike any specific religions or art or culture that preceded them, but all of them reflecting the priorities of human nature. The science that would eventually emerge would, however, be like ours; it cannot help but be, since it would be a rigorously tested perception of the reality of the universe.
The plausibility of such catastrophes, especially given the relatively rapid ascent of our species in recent centuries, might well explain the Fermi paradox – why we have detected no similar sentient races on the planets of other suns.
I will be refining this post and will eventually post it as a ‘page’ linkable from the top menu bar of my blog. This is my worldview.