Thus, I think delusions are especially relevant to philosophy, the field in which reason tempers a torrent of speculation on nonscientific questions, and to theology in which there’s much less of that tempering. Technoscience is serious business, although those in the businesses of rationally solving nature’s mysteries and of using engineering to transform mindless facts into embodiments of our values presuppose a philosophy or religion, whether it be Scientistic pragmatism, liberal secular humanism, social Darwinism, or the anti-Jesus bastardization of Christianity that’s so shockingly prevalent in the US. This is to say that there’s little time for art or any other playful nonsense in technoscience itself; as Michael Corleone says in The Godfather, “It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business.” But the business of technoscience is directed towards some ends which are subject to normative evaluation. Is technoscience a good thing? Should we be transforming nature as we are, imposing our hopes and fears onto facts, by extending our artificial environment and so wiping out the prehuman wilderness? Who knows? There’s no provable answer to such philosophical questions.
Myths and Delusions in the Game of Life
We can only speculate, meaning that we must choose to follow our gut reactions to mental artworks that we create when we philosophize or when we tell each other stories that codify collective ideals. These latter stories are myths in the non-pejorative sense, and a religion is a set of practices that makes us feel better about that existential choice to commit ourselves to mere speculations, or to “have faith” as theists commonly say. So in contrast to technoscience, philosophy and religion are largely artistic: philosophers and theologians play with ideas, creating them by speculating and telling stories to address questions that can’t yet or perhaps never will be answered with rigorous quantification and experimentation. But not all moves in a game are of equal value; some moves are out of bounds while others follow the rules and may even be heroic. But the rules in games such as chess, game shows, and computer games are typically arbitrary and so even heroic moves in a game are relatively trivial. This is because a game’s playing field is artificially removed from the rest of the world. We might thus distinguish between games and sports by saying that the two are on opposite ends of a continuum and that games are mostly artificial since they’re regulated more by arbitrary rules, whereas sports feature physical exertion and thus involve moves that are regulated more by natural laws.
Now, myths and delusions are most relevant in our dealings with nonscientific questions, such as the normative question of what we should do with our life. This is the deepest, most existential question and alas, we can address it only by playing around. To be sure, facing up to the existential question of what our ultimate values ought to be, given the unpleasant facts that define our existence as humans, entails life-altering horror and angst. Nevertheless, when we commit to a philosophy or to a religion, we’re playing around; that is, we’re being moved by a piece of mental art and we let that art guide our development and our actions. Regardless of our rationalizations that bolster our self-esteem, our answer to the existential riddle and all the rituals and other practices that follow from that commitment are as objectively absurd as the scoring of a touchdown, the hitting of a homerun, or the checkmating of a chess player’s king. We can get caught up in these moves when we’re playing them or when we suspend disbelief and watch with the rest of the audience, but looked at objectively, all games and even sports are ridiculous and thus so are our lives.
The moves we make according to cultural conventions fall somewhere between the moves in a game like the Angry Birds app and a sport like mixed martial arts. What I mean is that the moves are subject both to arbitrary rules and to natural laws pertaining to dominance hierarchies and to the physical degeneration of all large social organizations into woeful monopolies (dictatorships, oligarchies, plutocracies, oligopolies, etc). In society, we each have a persona or public side of ourselves that must respect social conventions. These conventions derive either from the vision or whim of some artist or powerful businessperson, in which case they’re relatively artificial, or from biological or physical patterns, in which case they’re relatively natural. As I said, a culture is regulated by both ideas and by natural norms, and so culture is part game and part sport. The more “sophisticated” the society, the more game-like it is and thus the more ridiculously out-of-touch it is with natural reality.
And here we can see where myths and delusions come into play: myths lead us well whereas delusions mislead us in our more or less ridiculous response to our existential predicament. Our problem is that we’re forced to make a normative move under dire circumstances; even if we choose not to play, by killing ourselves, we make that one last move which may, in turn, influence other people’s moves. Our moves are choices: we’re relatively self-controlling creatures and that self-control has cursed us with knowledge of the rules of the game. For example, we know we’re finite and we know we have a pronounced rational side even though we’re also forced to preoccupy ourselves with beastly matters of sexual reproduction and of competing with others in a dominance hierarchy. Our lives are tragic and absurd, and when looked at from the subversive esoteric perspective, all our thoughts and actions are perfectly ridiculous, bringing more or less shame to ourselves and to our ancestors. For every character trait, choice, or lifestyle, there’s a savage barb that cries out to be made; indeed, the moral of postmodernism is that the deeper you’re involved in some culture, the more likely there’s an external vantage point from which that culture seems all the more arbitrary for its disregard of everything that falls beyond its horizon. The universe is an undead, self-transforming abomination that mocks our existential rebellions and our spiritual pretensions. We are trapped here and the most authentic among us, who face the existential quandary head-on, are doomed to hold up suffering rather than happiness as the noblest ideal--suffering in honour of the fear and misery which are the lots of most creatures that our planet spits up for no good reason; suffering to refuse to play along so straightforwardly and predictably with the rules of our hideous blood sport, by preferring a life of personal contentment, free of worry or hardship.
But what makes myths better than delusions? Indeed, a myth can appear to be a delusion from the perspective of someone who cherishes an opposing myth. In the contexts of philosophy and religion, myths and delusions are speculative stories that either succeed or fail according to certain ethical and aesthetic criteria. For example, a story can deal more or less honestly with the existential facts and can ennoble or degrade those moved by the story, by teaching them to be virtuous or vicious; in particular, self-delusion requires a kind of cowardice. The more important ethical consideration, though, is the former one, since again, which character traits count as virtues or vices is often subjective, whereas our existential predicament is an objective touchstone. Also, a story can be creative or unoriginal, visionary or clichéd, inspiring and emotionally moving or hackneyed, politically correct, and cynically manipulative.
Surrendering to a Higher Power
Let’s look at an example that illustrates the difference between myths and delusions. Here’s an article on the NY Times philosophical blog, about William James’s account of how people deal with suffering. According to the article, there are lower and higher tolerances for pain, and there can also be more or less suffering in your life, but the more suffering you bear the closer you are to hitting rock bottom, as the saying goes. The article’s author says that this is consistent with the modern theory of addiction, which gives rise to the famous 12-step program. There are stages of coping with suffering, ranging from the pleasure’s diminishment, to its destruction, to “pathological melancholy.” In the last stage, a sufferer loses all hope or trust in any value, and sinks into apathy and depression: “The person in the grips of the worst melancholy experiences a frightening anxiety about the universe and everything in it. At this point, panic and fright completely govern a person.” But ‘James understood this fear and saw the potential for transformation “through a passion of renunciation of the self and surrender to the higher power.” It is after this renunciation that one can experience “the acute fever” of a spiritual life.’ According to the article, “To surrender, in more Jamesian terms, is to make oneself open to new possibilities. To surrender is to stop clutching core beliefs or parts of one’s identity so tightly.” And the higher power needn’t be God, but could be “nature, moral principles, patriotism, or a sense of fellowship or good will to others.”
Supposing there are these stages of suffering, the solution of renouncing your prior convictions and of surrendering to a higher power would be a process of self-transformation similar to technoscience’s transformation of wilderness into a more ideal and artificial environment. In each case, there’s a reversal directed by certain values. When natural facts are mixed with human labour and our mentality is projected onto nature as a blueprint or a model that guides the engineering, nature causes less suffering and the existential predicament is solved by undoing the threatening facts themselves. Ultimately, the desired end of technoscience is the creation of heaven on earth in the form of the perfect society, sustained by infinite wealth and opportunity. In the case of self-transformation, a person’s suffering ends because she undoes herself, including her prior normative commitments, reconfiguring her thought patterns with drugs, cognitive behavioural therapy, or a religious conversion experience. In any case, the new self chooses a new religion, that is, a way of life based on a set of ultimate values. Her previous way of life caused her so much grief that she’s forced to try some other strategy.
Note that it’s not so much a higher power to which the sufferer surrenders herself, but a competing power, one that challenges her core beliefs. The previous self is destroyed as soon as those beliefs are renounced, but those beliefs needn’t be atheistic or egoistic, as though only worshippers of the self could be led to such a pit of despair. No, a Christian, for example, might be led to convert to atheistic humanism, and instead of simply surrendering to a higher power, she’ll replace one such power (God) with another (technoscience or nature). The important point isn’t that the sufferer must surrender to something greater than the self, but that she must be attracted to something different from her suffering self, so that she can reconfigure her mind according to a foreign set of ideals. Again, it’s not the highness of the source of inspiration, but its newness that’s supposed to end suffering. And yet the modern meme is indeed that if you’ve reached the nadir of your decline, you should submit not just to a power (i.e. a set of ideals and principles justified by myths or delusions) that’s new for you, but to a higher power. I take it this betrays the Christian bias of the 12-step program in the US. This meme presupposes that atheism causes suffering whereas theism is the way out. According to this scapegoating fantasy, the atheist worships the self and so to escape from the anxiety which that egoism produces, the atheist must have faith precisely in a higher power, something greater than the self. The highness here is an allusion to ancient theistic cosmology, according to which heaven is literally above us in the sky.
Now in reality atheism doesn’t cause greater suffering; instead, atheism is needed to prepare yourself to see the horrible reality of nature. Atheism is just the messenger. While atheists and theists alike cope with suffering differently, only atheists look squarely at the ultimate cause of suffering, which is our rational awareness of the natural preconditions of life. Good or bad ideals, or faiths in “higher powers,” can equally alleviate suffering and reboot your cognitive system. Whether you’re moved by myths inspired by artistic genius or you desperately cling to a hackneyed delusion because your taste in mental art is atrocious, the values and principles which your metanarrative attempts to justify can direct your life and distract you so that you give up the objective perspective that subverts all speculations. But in the hackneyed words of President Obama and of most other democratic politicians: “make no mistake,” myths are better than delusions and so we shouldn’t settle for just any philosophy or religion that comes along. (Politicians are preoccupied with mistakes because they’re blind to their potential for evil, being mostly sociopaths who lack the feelings needed for a moral sense. According to their memes, all sins are mere mistakes, as though waging an unnecessary war were comparable to putting on your underwear backwards out of tiredness.)
In the case of radical self-transformation, in which a sufferer somehow renounces all her philosophical and religious convictions to recreate her character and her worldview, she’ll have no basis to evaluate the alternative worldview, and so this kind of self-transformation may amount to brainwashing; that is, she may indeed just settle for whichever new belief system comes along. Again, some of a worldview’s ethical and aesthetic strengths and weaknesses are objective, so as long as the neophyte retains some capacity for reasoning and some knowledge of how worldviews operate, her transformation won’t be so radical that she’ll be left helpless and available for exploitation. For example, she’ll face the question of whether, in entertaining some new worldview, she’s merely deluding herself. She’ll have to decide whether she knows better than to accept the ground rules of this new game she’s invited to play. In the case of the 12-step program that pushes Christianity on the vulnerable drug addicts, the addicts nevertheless delude themselves badly by failing to appreciate the religion’s grotesque incoherence. Whether the neophyte stands by her reasoning and has the courage to resist an easy way out or an obvious delusion, as in the propaganda of a feel-good but exploitative cult, depends on how much of her character and cognitive faculties are left to her in her process of self-transformation. The more of her mind that’s wiped in the process, the less ethically or aesthetically respectable her new worldview can be.
In police states like China, North Korea, or Iran, for example, the reigning theologies are undermined by the naked cowardice on display in the authorities’ ham-fisted methods of enforcing the population’s enslavement to the ideology. Even were the ideology internally coherent and admirable in its ability to unite the society, the ideology would be more a delusion than a myth, according to ethical and aesthetic standards. If a worldview demonizes all manners of opposition, the worldview’s chief proponents either cynically use the ideas to enslave people or are themselves severely self-deluded and fragile little mammals.
What is it, then, to believe in a myth in the non-pejorative sense? And is there currently such a myth for modern and postmodern people, that is, for those of us whose existential plight is conditioned by our experience of technoscience, including our modern knowledge of nature? As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I believe there are presently only hints of such a myth, which is to say that all worldviews in modern societies are closer to delusions than to myths. The less deluded folks, who at least face up to the existential problem, still tend not to know what to believe at the philosophical and religious levels. This is the postmodern condition, to be jaded and befuddled after the inability of modern societies to fulfill the Scientistic, Enlightenment promises of human-made utopia. As for the philosophies and religions of primitive societies, they may have great ethical and aesthetic strengths, but they won’t empower their adherents by enabling them to cope with what we learn from modern science. Those people will be ignorant of modern scientific findings and they won’t have experienced the extent of modern control of natural forces, and so their myths will be largely irrelevant to people who are cursed with having an overflow of information.
Finally, I want to address the objection that modern people have outgrown the need for myths. Elsewhere, I’ve argued that those wannabe ultrarationalists are likely beholden to the cryptoreligion of Scientism or secular humanism (see here and here). Here, I just want to point to a simple way of revealing the speculative underpinnings of a belief system. You simply keep questioning the person’s assumptions until the difference between that person and, say, Data from Star Trek is laid bare. For example, the New Atheist is usually indignant when told that everyone not only does have but should have some religion or largely artistic philosophy, because our nature compels us to speculate to comfort ourselves in view of the horror of our existential predicament. This atheist will maintain that her beliefs are all rationally justified, because she suspends belief when the evidence is wanting or ambiguous. So instead of leaping into faith in some deity or going with her gut response to a powerful piece of mental art, she’ll check her enthusiasm and remain agnostic about all such theological or philosophical matters.
But whence this person’s extreme caution? Does science show that we ought to abandon the game of speculating on nonscientific issues or of using artworks like fictional narratives to guide our normative decisions? All we have here is the induction that science successfully shows us what the facts are, so that if we want to keep learning about the natural universe, we should keep doing science. This doesn’t imply that we should care only about the facts. Even if we also have abundant experience of the harm that speculations can do, as in the wars between religions and the conflict between religion and science, there’s still no logical inference here that we should be cautious and should give up speculations entirely because of their dangers. At the root of this science-centered worldview is a character type, an attitude that’s made up of feelings underlying all the person’s appeals to logic and science. We have here someone who copes with our common existential situation, by irrationally clinging to Reason and by playing coy, refusing to take an explicit philosophical or religious stand even as her extreme caution betrays an implicit one. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, if this alleged ultrarationalist has a sex life and a powerful position in a dominance hierarchy, you can be sure that she’s merely irrationally (and superficially) hostile to philosophy and to religion, because those disciplines call attention to the opportunity to be more responsible in our handling of nonscientific questions. That is, her rejection of such largely-artistic practices as philosophy and religion won’t be a matter of consistently following some logical principle, because she’ll irrationally surrender to temptations in other areas of her life.