Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity. It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and ‘commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are all equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically?
…Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, ‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: ‘I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’
It’s likely that more than a few readers squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs while reading the preceding paragraphs. Most of us today are educated to react in such a way. It is easy to accept that Hammurabi’s code was a myth, but we do not want to hear that human rights are also a myth. If people realize that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.’ Hammurabi would have said the same about his principle of hierarchy, and Thomas Jefferson about human rights. Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.
A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat…Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.
Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled…But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither individually know, nor effectively gossip about, more than 150 human beings…How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths…Yet none of these things exists outside of the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.
The late political scientist James Q. Wilson described “Calvin and Hobbes” as “our only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle.” Wilson meant that the social order is founded on self-control and delayed gratification—and that Calvin is hopeless at these things. Calvin thinks that “life should be more like TV” and that he is “destined for greatness” whether he does his homework or not. His favorite sport is “Calvinball,” in which he is entitled to make up the rules as he goes along.
Day-in, day-out, Calvin keeps running into evidence that the world isn’t built to his (and our) specifications. All humor is, in one way or another, about our resistance to that evidence.
Aristotelian philosophy? Pfft. What this shows is that Calvin is the modern-day embodiment of a trickster deity. Selfish, amoral, and prone to delusions of grandeur, his wild adventures nevertheless tend to produce beneficial results for others, however inadvertently (in our case, at least, we are greatly entertained). He belongs to the realm of mythology, predating philosophy.
In the literary milieu where he is ignored more than despised, John Brockman is about as well known as the first three digits of the number Pi.
“This crowd sees everything through the lenses of culture and politics,” he says. “But an understanding of life, of the world, can only come through biology, through science.”
Ebola, stem cells, brain research—Who needs the new David Foster Wallace, the new Philip Roth?
“The great questions of the world concern scientific news,” says Brockman. “We are at the beginning of a revolution. And what we hear from the mainstream is: “Please make it go away.”
…As man slowly seems to turn into an algorithm, this is then a consequence of the cybernetic thinking that has influenced and sustained Brockman in the world.
I shared this article with Arthur as part of an ongoing conversation we’re having about scientism, reductionism, and the popular modern delusion that life is essentially a problem to be solved by means of the hard sciences. All of this is itself part of our intelligence-gathering operations as he and I formulate plans for a possible Winter Offensive against Less Wrong-style rationalism and its Saint-Simonian underpinnings. (By “he and I”, of course, I mean that “I” plan to cheer him on as “he” sallies forth to wage intellectual warfare for which I am sorely lacking in weaponry.) From there, you’ll never believe how the conversation turned to mythology, Alan Watts, and surprising confessions of faith in trickster deities!
(Am I doing this clickbait thing right?)
In one of the lamentably-lesser-known stories of Norse mythology, Willis Carrier, a.k.a. Frosty Prometheus (praise his name), seduced the goddess Skaði 111 years ago on this very date. She awoke from post-coital drowsiness to see him attempting to tiptoe out her door. Enraged at his caddishness, she cursed and bellowed at his departing form, her anger taking the form of a howling winter gale. Using a bottomless magic pouch that Loki had lost to him in a card game, he captured her frigid breath before it could freeze him solid, tied off the pouch, and scurried back home to safety. After patenting the mechanism for the safe storage and release of Skaði’s breath, he deigned to parcel out a certain amount of it every summer for public consumption, thus allowing his fellow humans to live comfortably on days like today and tomorrow, when the heat index hovers around a hundred and ten goddamned degrees, I mean for fuck’s sake already. So yes, fall to your knees and give thanks that such a hero ever existed.
(Seriously, that’s one of the best myths of all time. I’m surprised Ovid hasn’t covered it yet.)
What would American political culture look like without its pervasive moral dramas of sin and redemption, sometimes expressed in forms lofty and noble, but at other times resembling nothing so much as the smarminess and vulgarity of soap opera? One thing can be said for certain: We are not only intensely fascinated by these episodes of political theater, but fully in the grip of them, as far more than mere onlookers. For an allegedly secular society, the United States seems to be curiously in thrall to ideas, gestures, emotional patterns, nervous tics, and deep premises that belong to the supposedly banished world of religion. These habits of heart and mind are evident everywhere we look, and they possess a compulsive and unquestioned power in contemporary American life. It is as if the disappearance of religion’s metaphysical dimension has occasioned a tightening hold of certain of its moral dimensions, particularly so far as these relate to guilt and absolution.
Consider the range of manifestations: The feeding frenzies over malfeasances by public officials, real or imagined, eventuating in obligatory rituals of public confession and abasement before the altar of Oprah Winfrey or some other secular priest or priestess invested with the power to give or withhold absolution. The obsession with our environmental sins, both as an overconsuming society and as individuals leaving carbon footprints, giving rise to such phenomena as “carbon offsets,” schemes that have been decried by skeptics as little more than “green indulgences,” transparent sops to voracious (and credulous) consciences. The almost bottomless reservoirs of racial guilt and recrimination, most recently illustrated by the embarrassingly abject apology proffered by James Wagner, the president of Emory University, for the sin of mentioning in an essay the formulation of the three-fifths rule in the U.S. Constitution as an example of political compromise, instead of condemning the rule with thundering, absolute, and final moral certainty, as so many on his faculty demanded he do, no doubt in the spirit of academic freedom. The similar and related tendency to shout down all unwelcome speech as being a form of bigotry and therefore morally unacceptable: anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, homophobic, un-American, and so on. On many college campuses, the inhibiting fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way to the wrong person has all but rendered vigorous debate impossible. Whatever else one might say of these manifestations, they do not reflect a culture in which easygoing relativism, tolerance, skepticism, and laissez-faire permissiveness reign. It is instead a culture clenched taut with every imaginable form of moral anxiety, seemingly convinced despite its own secular professions that we inhabit a universe that has an inherent and unforgiving moral structure.
Other writers have noticed this as well. Not to mention the interesting irony that the first nation consciously designed in the spirit of the Enlightenment should have retained, on the popular level, such an intense religiosity. Those theological assumptions were only stashed in a Micmac burial ground, so they return with something not quite right about them. The widespread need for mythological structure to human lives doesn’t disappear just because someone points out that the myths aren’t literally true.
That is not to say Leiter’s argument is watertight. The claim that religion deserves no special exemptions from generally applicable rules may be right but not because there is anything particularly irrational or otherwise lacking in religious belief. After all, what counts as a religious belief? Aware of the difficulty of defining religion, Leiter devotes a section of the book to the question. His discussion is more sophisticated than many on the subject but he still draws a categorical distinction between religious and other beliefs that is difficult, if not impossible to sustain. Among the distinctive features of religious beliefs, he maintains, is their insulation from evidence. Religious believers may cite what they consider to be evidence in support of their beliefs; they tend not to revise these beliefs in the light of new evidence, still less to cite evidence against them. Instead, their beliefs are part of what Leiter describes as a “distinctively religious state of mind . . . that of faith”.
The trouble is that it is not only avowed believers who display this state of mind.
…Again, nothing infuriates the current crop of evangelical atheists more than the suggestion that militant unbelief has many of the attributes of religion. Yet, in asserting that the rejection of theism could produce a better world, they are denying the clear evidence of history, which shows the pursuit of uniformity in world-view to be itself a cause of conflict. Whether held by the religious or by enemies of religion, the idea that universal conversion to (or from) any belief system could vastly improve the human lot is an act of faith. Illustrating Nietzsche’s observations about the tonic properties of false beliefs, these atheists are seeking existential consolation just as much as religious believers.
If religion does not deserve a special kind of toleration, it is because there is nothing special about religion. Clinging to beliefs against evidence is a universal human tendency. The practice of toleration – and it is the practice, cobbled up over generations and applied in ethics and politics as much as religion, that is important – is based on this fact. Toleration means accepting that most of our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted and many of them absurd. At bottom, that is why – in a time when so many people are anxious to believe they are more rational than human beings have ever been – toleration is so unfashionable.
Years ago, I would have read this and bristled over the facile equation of atheism to religion. And if that were his main point, I’d probably still react that way. But the more interesting —and true — point here is the almost banal reminder that, insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, we don’t actually have any meaningful idea what would happen if the whole world adopted western-style atheism. People might no longer be stupid in uniquely monotheistic ways anymore, but I think it’s a safe bet that we would just find new ways to express our bottomless reserves of stupidity. The point is not that we shouldn’t care about pursuing truth or making improvements; the point is just that we can observe how the same perennial themes of human nature reassert themselves even when, especially when, we pride ourselves on our supposed accomplishments. The Greeks were on to something with all that stuff about hubris, no less so for having expressed it in mythological story-form. As certain segments of the online atheist community have made brutally clear this year, reasoning your way to the nonexistence of God is not necessarily any protection against being insanely stupid in other ways.
How do people react when they’re actually confronted with error? You get a huge range of reactions. Some people just don’t have any problem saying, “I was wrong. I need to rethink this or that assumption.” Generally, people don’t like to rethink really basic assumptions. They prefer to say, “Well, I was wrong about how good Romney’s get out to vote effort was.” They prefer to tinker with the margins of their belief system (e.g., “I fundamentally misread US domestic politics, my core area of expertise”).
A surprising fraction of people are reluctant to acknowledge there was anything wrong with what they were saying. One argument you sometimes hear, and we heard this in the abovementioned episode, but I also heard versions of it after the Cold War. “I was wrong, but I made the right mistake.”
More and more, I find the kind of issues explored by authors like Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, the Brafman brothers, Thaler and Sunstein, Chabris and Simons, etc., to be far more interesting and pertinent than the details of ideological differences.
Where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think Richard Dawkins should be blacklisted or any such thing. I do know that I’m probably less likely to buy his books or to watch his speeches than I was before, and I’m certainly less likely to recommend them to people who aren’t familiar with atheism. I’d like to see him enlightened, but I think it serves little purpose to attack him. Our time would be more constructively served by finding and promoting people who are better suited to be the public face of the atheist movement.
We’re not going to blacklist him, we’re just going to quarantine him behind a wall of silence and speak of him, if we absolutely must, only in the past tense, like parents who tell strangers that their rebellious black sheep of a son actually died fighting nobly on a far-off battlefield. Ahahaha. It’s almost like Dawkins’ strict adherence to science and atheism blinded him to the oblique truth to be found in, oh, the irony, mythology. Honestly, you can’t script this kind of entertainment.
You know, though, if there were one principle that you would think atheists and rationalists might be uniquely suited to defend, it would be the imperative to discuss ideas on their own merits in specific contexts, to refuse to countenance the underhandedness of ad hominem dismissals of an argument. If Dawkins is indeed a sexist dickhead, that would present a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike the conventional, irrational attitude which treats heretical opinions as contagions which will infect anyone foolish enough to engage with them, we are calm and composed enough to separate the grain from the chaff in his writings, rather than cast it all aside in the vain search for ideological purity. “Here’s a good book about atheism by Richard Dawkins. Yeah, he’s got some stupid opinions about feminism, but that’s irrelevant in this context. Just read the arguments he makes here.” What’s so hard about that?
Nothing—unless you’re trying to build a brand. And as any marketers and advertisers are happy to tell you, perceptions and slick PR are what matter, not truth. No doubt, the A-plussers are telling themselves that unlike every other would-be revolutionary group that has sought power and influence, they’ll never compromise their principles in the process. It may be a moot point, of course—time will tell if they come out of their ideological purification rituals intact, or if they end up, like in Monty Python, as a bunch of competing Popular Fronts of atheism consisting of one or two members apiece. But if they’re that eager to jettison Dawkins for inconveniencing their rebranding efforts, you can expect many more such sacrificial measures, should they actually achieve their goal of becoming a viable force in American society.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: If I thought that religion was false but beneficial, or even just a harmless diversion, then I wouldn’t object to it as strenuously as I do, and I certainly wouldn’t spend as much time writing about it as I do. I argue against religion because I think it’s dangerous, because I think it does more harm than good, and because I think that when people give it up, humanity will be better off. As far as I’m concerned, atheism isn’t an end in itself but a means to an end, and that end is the creation of a freer, more peaceful, more enlightened world.
I don’t mean that religion has only bad consequences. People’s religious beliefs can bring them together in community and inspire them to acts of charity; but people’s religious beliefs also motivate and promote ignorance, hatred, prejudice, xenophobia, violence, terrorism, and holy war. I’m confident that if we give up religion, we can get rid of these evils without losing anything good. There are perfectly good secular, humanist reasons for forming communities, engaging in charity, and treating each other with compassion and dignity, and I happen to believe that people would do these things whether or not they believed in a god.
First of all, let’s point this out: we have no idea what would happen if everyone on earth were to “give up religion” in all its guises, from monotheism to animism. Nothing of the sort has ever occurred before, obviously. Breezily claiming that we would all be “better off” is basically a meaningless statement of the “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” variety—grammatically and syntactically correct, but lacking any real-world referent. The ripple effect from such a profound alteration of basic human psychology would be unpredictable, to put it mildly.
And we are talking about psychology here, not rationality. Religion is an outgrowth of humanity’s communal impulses, not an imposition from the outside. People didn’t decide, as rational agents, to band together and submerge their individuality in the group because they heard one clever person tell a story about a man in the sky who wanted them to do that; that’s completely ass-backwards. People naturally form groups. The stories they tell themselves about their groups are what we call myths. These myths can be more or less grandiose, but they all help people make sense of their experience—”sense”, as in, symmetry, cohesion. Humans, like any other animal, have no inherent purpose but to exist and reproduce. Seeking truth for its own sake through science and rationality is just one of the supplementary purposes we’ve come up with, and if that truth is disheartening and disorienting, people aren’t being “unreasonable” to reject it in favor of myths. And the idea that humans are destined or obligated to recognize their essential kinship and work together to maximize the reach of a certain set of abstract values is itself a myth. A story that orders experience in a pleasing way so that people like Adam won’t suffer a crippling existential crisis.
Ignorance, hatred, prejudice, violence, xenophobia, war — I happen to believe that people would do these things whether or not they believed in a god.
Wright is a very thoughtful writer and this is a very interesting and analytical book – it’s not at all a piece of tub thumping. He’s examining the myth of progress. I don’t mean myth in the sense that it’s a lie, I mean in the sense of the guiding story that our civilisation lives by. Wright says that all civilisations live by myths, that we all have stories that we believe in about the way the world is. One of our myths is the idea of progress – that things always get better and that we are moving in a step-by-step evolutionary process towards a better life. In some ways that is true. We can look back over the last 100 years in the western world and see that medicine, science and technology have got better and we have more democracy. So we can look at these and say progress is real. But if you look at the big sweep of human civilisation over the last 10,000 or 15,000 years, then progress is a lot more bumpy. It goes up and down.
The really interesting thing about Wright’s book is his examination of why what we regard as progress happened in the first place. He finds that more often than not it’s an accident, and what we regard as a deliberate step forward to a new and better form of society is often actually something that’s done in order to make up for a mistake that happened before. He sees progress as a series of traps which, far from improving life for everybody, just force us into this machine – this strange civilisation which goes faster and faster. And as it does so, it eats up all its own natural resources, creates a society which grips its citizens tighter and tighter, and needs more and more economic growth until at a certain stage it all collapses and the process begins again.
It’s interesting to consider every so often the fact that so much of what we call progress, whether cultural, political, or technological, has only occurred in the last 200 years. And yet, we constantly act as if this tiny little slice of history is representative of anything essential to existence, and we expect it to continue indefinitely. I don’t see questioning it as being fatalist, though—we can’t help but act, and there’s no salvation to be found in trying to live in some equally mythical harmony with nature, either.