Monday, May 20, 2013

Prayer, Truth, and the Re-enchantment of Nature

From an atheistic perspective, prayer is preposterous. When children talk to their invisible friends or to their dolls or other toys, adults look on knowingly, with a condescending smile. But when most adults talk to invisible spirits, requesting divine aid, confessing their sins, casting spells, or groveling and worshipping, atheists are actually put in a bind. Children’s ignorance can be humoured because they have little responsibility, and adults have formal roles as guardians. Although atheists appear to deserve the same rights over their laughably childish theistic neighbours, there’s no such formal arrangement. An adult has the legal right to make decisions for the child’s welfare, to raise the child by rewarding and punishing as necessary. But were an atheist to send, say, a priest to bed without supper, for his undignified prolongation of childhood follies, the Church might call the police and the atheist might be locked up! Imagine that: a parent who is naturally forced into the role of guardian by her apparent cognitive superiority to her charges, prevented from fulfilling her obligations by politically correct nostalgia for a kind of gross naivety.

So the atheist is left to wonder at the strangeness of the world, at the creation of so many adults whose every act is suspect because of their glaring, albeit partial mental retardation. Just imagine if instead of talking seriously to people who aren’t there and who don’t talk back, theists wore diapers and sucked on pacifiers at work. Oh, they’d pretend to be full-fledged adults: they’d don their power suits, earn piles of cash, drive cars, go on vacation, and talk about adult matters, but all the while they wouldn’t be able to conceal those signs of their bewilderment. And the few adults who wouldn’t need diapers or pacifiers anymore, because they’d have outgrown the most blatant form of self-centeredness, would be legally prevented from saying that the emperor has no clothes; the atheists would be barred from taking command of the human family and treating the theistic majority of people as the children they evidently still are. Who should be pitied more, the theists for being unable to appreciate why they deserve to be ridiculed every day and night until the end of time or the atheists who must suffer such absurdity with no effective recourse? A question for the ages…

Prayer as Personification

Let’s take a step back and talk about prayer. Why do most people pray? The evolutionary reason is given in Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. We have an instinct, or mental module, for reading psychological patterns into processes, an instinct we need to interpret each other’s behaviour and make our way through social networks. Natural selection errs on the side of caution. For example, an animal would much rather make a hasty retreat after a false alarm than be stingy in its defenses and eaten by a predator. Thus, instead of holding back on our skill for positing minds, we err on the side of caution and personify everything under and over the sun, including the sun itself. We interpret everything as having a mind, because we’re most comfortable dealing with other minds. We like to keep track of each other’s social status, our character types and personal histories, and who owes what to whom. We like making up stories about fictional heroes and their exploits, to amuse ourselves as though remembering the mental attributes of our real friends and colleagues weren’t sufficiently taxing on our mental resources. We pity autistic people who lack that instinct and so can’t understand human minds. And so everyone is naturally inclined to project mental capacities onto things that are manifestly impersonal. Even atheists may yell at a rock that lands on their toe. Nevertheless, just as children need to be trained to become adults, atheists, skeptics, rationalists, and scientists train themselves not to overuse that instinct. An atheist may not pray even when her situation is dire and she could use a deus ex machina. She’d feel ridiculous getting down on her knees and speaking to no one just as she would were she to go to work wearing a diaper, sucking on a pacifier, and holding a security blanket. 

That’s the evolutionary cause of prayer, but prayer also has many rationalizations which reduce to the idea that we need to harmonize somehow with the world, to be in rapport with ultimate reality. Assuming that reality is personal, our best means of relating to it is through communication, so that’s why people tell themselves they should pray. And were ultimate reality impersonal, prayer would of course be foolish, but the harm would be minimal since those who pray are in the majority and have established the legal right to embarrass themselves in that fashion, so that atheists aren’t entitled to shepherd the invalids.

As is common knowledge, atheism isn’t politically correct even in many modern societies, but it is taken for granted by the technoscientific institutions that have dominated the planet for the last several centuries. Scientists are methodologically naturalistic, meaning that they assume everything has a natural explanation, that there are no supernatural agents such as a disembodied mind that controls natural forces. Now, I said that rationalists have no effective recourse when dealing with so many childish adults, because the law and the numbers aren’t on their side. But rationalists have reacted to the overwhelming evidence that the universe is natural and impersonal, after all, and it’s interesting to compare this reaction with the theist’s attempt at rapport through prayer. The theist prays and divines an imagined response, as though the universe were answering back through the voice of her own intuition or through any chance event or natural process. Overusing our capacity to interpret psychological patterns is so easy for us that any apparently impersonal event can be given a theistic reading. The thesis that ultimate reality is personal is thus unfalsifiable, and so this is hardly a scientific proposition. Again, in evolutionary terms, anthropomorphism and prayer are natural processes (genetic strategies to keep social mammals like us alive). The choice isn’t to pray but to refuse to succumb to the temptation to overuse the mental module. The heroism isn’t to leap to faith in a personal source of nature, but to resist the mass delusion at the cost of being ostracized by the mentally weaker herd.  

Semantics as Personification

Still, although rationalists have taken modern science to heart, they have curious substitutes for prayer and for other such gross theistic follies. Finding that the universe is mostly devoid of life and that we creatures are confined to our planet, alienated from matter and dreading our inevitable demise, rationalists improve their situation by humanizing their environments, replacing mind-independent facts with the value-laden artifices of culture and technology. Theists have the capacity for reason too, so this project of turning the wilderness into a mirror is ancient and global in scope, stretching back tens of thousands of years to the cave paintings at Lascaux. How is the humanization accomplished? In its modern form, by scientifically learning how the impersonal processes work and systematically exploiting that knowledge in capitalistic economies that reward innovation and industry. How, though, do scientists learn the facts? By experimenting, to be sure, but also by communicating their explanations to each other and to the world at large, often using artificial languages to make the most precise distinctions.

These explanations are thought to be true, to agree with the facts. But it’s just here that there’s room for comparison with prayer. Prayer is supposed to be a dialogue that puts creatures in rapport with the spirit world. “Rapport” comes from the French word “rapporter,” meaning to bring back. The harmonious connection between the praying person and her god, then, is supposed to end with the person’s being brought back to her ultimate source. Prayer is needed to rectify a disconnection, the fallenness of people who aren’t at one with their gods, and prayer is supposed to bring them together again, to atone for their sins or to appease the angry deities. Technoscience likewise rectifies a disharmony, namely the impersonality of nature and the aloneness of living things, by taming the indifferent elements and forces and blotting out wilderness wherever possible, since wilderness, the state of nature that’s untouched by any living thing, is the enemy’s stronghold, as it were, the portent that life is a horrible accident and thus the cause of our existential anxiety. But whereas theists merely presuppose that the world is fundamentally personal and thus that prayer harmonizes the living things that are out of alignment, rationalists actually make it so with a real transformation of the world. Instead of purifying ourselves so that we’re fit to be in God’s august presence for eternity, rationalists change the inhuman environment to make it a fit pedestal for our godlike selves.

Those rigorous, scientific expressions, though--those are what I find most curious here. After all, before the technological transformation happens, you need the scientific theories that somehow agree with the facts. What is that agreement? As most philosophers agree, it’s not similarity or some causal relation. Minimally, the theory must be internally coherent, meaning that it must meet certain epistemic standards to be rationally justified, but there’s also this suspicion that a factual statement corresponds or agrees with a fact. On one level, the statement consists of squiggles or sound forms, but these are assigned meaning, which means they’re thought to represent other things. Notice that the relation of meaning is as invisible as the spirit world. Take this statement, for example: “A dog usually has four legs.” Assuming the statement’s true, this set of symbols, which can be translated into other languages, is thought to be about a fact in the world, namely a fact of how dogs are put together. But the symbols themselves don’t do anything. There’s no visible connection between them and the fact at hand. Now, I’ve argued elsewhere that semantic meaning does involve this complex causal relation of getting us to modify our environment, to make it more palatable to us. This is at best a broad pattern, since there are many ways to use the information that dogs usually have four legs, for example. In any case, this usefulness of symbols, whether they be inside or outside our head, doesn’t exhaust their meaningfulness. Suppose all life were wiped out in the universe, but our artifacts were to remain intact, including our written texts. Would those texts still carry meaning even were there no more possibility of using the symbols? If you think so, you believe semantic meaning is somehow more than any kind of use.

But what else could this meaning be? Like I said, there’s no mechanism there, no physical relationship between the symbols and the facts, and yet we assume there’s a deep connection between them. I submit that this connection is as ghostly as the one theists assume to hold between people and gods. As I argue elsewhere, reason disenchants the world, teaching us that spirits don’t lurk around every corner, but reason also re-enchants nature, expressing our instinct to personify in surprising ways. Just as most people are comforted by the assumption that ultimate reality is personal, so too we’re relieved when technology humanizes the wilderness. Moreover, the spirits seem to live on in semantics, and so truth is a kind of rapport and all truth-oriented speech takes on the urgency of prayer. The agreement between a statement and a fact is peculiar to the point of being only metaphorical. “Agree” comes from the Latin “gratum,” meaning what is grateful or pleasing. So strictly speaking, agreement happens only between living things, not between people and impersonal facts. The number of legs on a dog doesn’t agree or disagree with any statement and the semantic assumption otherwise is itself an act of personification.

And so the mental module strikes again. From the very beginning of language, before any explicit theology or vision of spirits, our ancestors’ impulse to interpret each other as minds living in social networks drove them to treat their grunts and other signals as being better or worse, depending on whether the signals and the facts were (metaphorically) happy together. Indeed, that impulse drove them to humanize themselves, to interpret their own thoughts as agreeing or disagreeing with the outer world. When two people agree, they might smile at each other or hug or do each other favours. And when a statement agrees with a fact, some mystical connection is supposedly made, called Truth. The symbols mirror the world and the two are brought in harmony. But that harmony is as elusive as the mentality of natural events. Because personification of nature is only a stretch of imagination, the agreement between symbols and personified things is bound to be farfetched and aesthetically flawed; that is, the metaphor that rationalizes semantic interpretation of symbols isn’t as compelling as the mental module that causes this behaviour.

Still, even the scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer programmers--the wizards who speak the arcane “language of nature,” as the perennial myth puts it--usually assume that statements are true if the facts agree with them (or if the Lord smiles upon them). The chief alternative is to take an entirely pragmatic attitude towards symbols; accordingly, there’s no such thing as truth and statements or theories are merely more or less useful in helping us achieve our goals. In fairly short order, this may land us in postmodern relativism and nihilism. Still, those may be merely the costs of not engaging in dubious anthropomorphism and mythologization. The way out, in my view, would be to uphold aesthetic standards in place of semantic (or moral) ones. In any case, the comparison that strikes me is of the theists kneeling in prayer, calling out apparently to no one whatsoever, and the rationalists (and most other language users) who speak to other people but who prize some statements more than others, as though the world cared one way or the other what noises we make or what marks we inscribe. Prayer is an especially childish kind of speech, but speech in general is rife with delusion. The difference is one of degree rather than kind: theists elaborate on the motives that the ghosts and deities are supposed to have, to rationalize prayer as a means of seeking agreement between us and the minds at the bottom of reality, while language users generally don’t explore the metaphysics or semantic theory behind the assumption that statements can be meaningful and true.

The upshot, then, is that we’re all childish regardless of our age or religious status, but some of us become self-righteous in our delusions. Language use is as instinctive as the search for mental patterns, but instead of seeing only the undead natural processes occurring here, we tell stories to make ourselves feel better about what and where we are. To be sure, prayer is especially ridiculous, because theists go out of their way to embarrass themselves, to showcase their desperation to have everlasting parents and other loved ones to make everything alright. But whenever any of us thinks, speaks, or writes and assumes that some configuration of our symbols corresponds with the facts, we likewise take ourselves to be aiming at a rapport with something that gives a damn, whereas we’re just howling at the moon.


  1. "In fairly short order, this may land us in postmodern relativism and nihilism."

    Everyone seems to shy away from this possibility, but why is this, besides emotional reasons? Can you really deny nihilism?

    I'm not well versed in philosophy, so forgive me if this is an ignorant question, but I've been wondering this for a while now.

    1. Thanks for your question. I'm going to be writing an article directly on nihilism when I get hold of some books by Emil Cioran, who's a hell of a nihilist. I think the main reason I'm not a nihilist is that I have a bit of an artistic sense, so I see the value of art, at least. And so I try to interpret as much as I can in aesthetic terms, to see the value of it. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the early Wittgenstein did the same.

      The key point for me, frankly, is that I like good stories and nihilism doesn't make for a good story.

    2. Ah, I see. I love art as well, but I know on an abstract level that it is ultimately emotional and pointless. Is meaning fundamentally based on emotion? Is this a negative thing? Should we put stock in our emotions like we do in our "reason"?

    3. The knee-jerk response is indeed to say that if some story is emotional, it's subjective, it's a matter of taste and opinion and is therefore worthless. I think this is based on a comparison of the arts and the sciences. The sciences evoke more fear because the they give us more power than the arts; thus, we lose respect for the arts. It's a matter of instinctively gravitating to the strongest person in the room and avoiding the weakling. This is folly on a great many levels.

      Does meaning depend on minds? Have you read my "Darwinism and Nature's Undeadness"? I'm still working through the implications of that article/rant. Certainly, without minds there would be no one to appreciate meaning, but is meaning/purpose something created by minds or is it implicit in natural processes? On the old teleological view of nature, there were objective purposes. That view was overthrown by modern science, but scientific theories have philosophical implications which may support a new idea of objective purposes and ideals. If the universe has a beginning, a middle, and an end, that's a pattern which corresponds to some stories better than others. For example, if the universe is naturally guaranteed to end with the destruction of all life, perhaps nature is more tragic than comedic as a matter of objective fact.

    4. But aren't these ideas of "tragic" and "comedic" just human values? If meaning exists irrespective of human consciousness, what is its form, its metaphysical properties? Is meaning made out of atoms, for instance?

      I haven't read that article yet, but I will. Apologies if it already answers these questions. :)

    5. Well, the ideas depend on us, as do the words, but what is the property of being tragic or comedic? What are the ideas or the words about? Is it possible that there's a story and thus an aesthetic meaning or pattern in the natural universe, because of the universe's temporal structure, its beginning, middle, and end? Check out that article I wrote on the undeadness of nature for some thoughts on this. But I might write something more specifically on this interesting question, of the objectivity of aesthetic properties.

  2. It's hard to see how pragmatism gets you out of this dilemma, Ben. How does the magic of 'use' compensate for the magic of 'aboutness'? The same can be said of 'aesthetic standards': what plucks aesthetic normativity out of the jaws of the mechanistic thresher? In other words, why assume that you yourself 'give a damn' as oppose to wend this way and that, only 'thinking,' 'feeling,' 'desiring,' and so on as a kind of post hoc delusion.

    In short, why not adhere to methodological naturalism all the way down? If science is revealing something unthinkable for creatures so blinkered as us, why pull up short, exempting this or that magical commitment? Why pray to the last fiction standing?

    Adulthood awaits! Sure it's tough. But then it always is, growing up.

    1. Well, I don't think pragmatism or aesthetics need be as magical as semantics. If talk of usefulness and desires presupposes true or false representations, then yes pragmatists are in trouble. For example, if our goal were to survive, the question would be whether we could regard our thoughts as merely useful in achieving that goal without also understanding the fact of that usefulness in semantic terms of correspondence. At any rate, the semantic interpretation would have to be a superstitious byproduct (epiphenomenon) rather than a presupposition of the psychological theory.

      As for aesthetics, I try to cash out the normative property of beauty in terms of originality in a natural evolution. This is based loosely on Alfred North Whitehead's metaphysics. We may think after the fact that it's True that creativity/originality is good, but that would again be a byproduct, an illusion that tends to crop up when the natural facts are interpreted by creatures like us. There would still be facts but they'd transcend what we say about them in our semantic interpretation. They wouldn't really agree or correspond with our symbols.

      Now, my picture leaves room for philosophy and even for religion in a way that I'm not sure yours does, and this is what I might like to write about next for your blog. What does philosophy or religion have to look like to be consistent with science, to be methodologically naturalistic? The problem with semantics is that the magic appealed to in the myth of truth as correspondence is stale magic! It's a child's magic trick that no longer fools us adults. We are still mammals, however, who enjoy being told good stories. You're a successful novelist, so you know this better than most. I wonder, then, where aesthetics fits into your picture.

      So according to a better myth/philosophical speculation, symbols don't agree with facts, but they take part in a natural process of creating something original, such as an existential revolt against a broader natural pattern (e.g. the life cycle).

      By the way, "mechanistic" seems like a sketchy term, since it's got teleological implications. I prefer "process" to "mechanism," for that reason, although when a process strikes a story-loving creature as being undead, all bets are off on what stories we might tell about that process at the philosophical/religious level, as long as we don't get full of ourselves as we tell those stories. If we remain humble and don't set up philosophy/religion in opposition to science, I think we're alright, but whether all talk of normativity is groundless in nature is the question we might disagree on.

  3. It all comes down to competing claims, doesn't it? You post regarding those claims you find objectionable or deceptive or problematic or what-have-you as do I. Methodological naturalism entails epistemic deference to natural scientific claims. What makes it so compelling is the absurd power this particular family of claims seems to possess. These claims, outside of fundamental physics, are overwhelmingly mechanistic. Scientists talk about mechanisms (or causal processes, if you prefer). What does what to what how. This talk, for whatever reason, allows us to intervene in the world in almost miraculous ways.

    Normativity involves talk about what does what FOR what. This FOR is a powerful heuristic short cut, just as ABOUT is a powerful heuristic shortcut. But there is no FOR in nature, anymore than there is ABOUT in nature. Shit just happens. Mechanism - or natural process - in no way presupposes FOR, no more than language presupposes ABOUT. When it comes to these two kinds of magic, I think one could make a much more persuasive case that FOR is by far the more 'stale' one. God is (un)dead, after-all!

    But the criterion of 'staleness' is surely too rubbery a hook to hang such heavy coats on. Thus my question: if you're going to strip, why stop at your normative skivvies? Why not STRIP? We're hurtling buck-naked into some crazed techno-future anyway.

    Why not look the Devil dead in the eye? Grapple with the worst case scenario, as opposed to the second or third worst?

    We just know too much about human cognition for me to think traditional philosophy has any credibility. Humans, left to their own devices, are theoretically incompetent. This means that methodological naturalism is the only COGNITIVE way forward. This is why we are so fucked. This is why traditional philosophy is fucked, especially now that science is tearing down the walls of complexity that have for so long allowed mind/soul/being-in-the-world to shelter in the mysteries of the brain. Science has debunked everything else: Why should your or anybody else's prescientific favourites be immune?

    I know you appreciate the difficulty of answering this question. But I'm keen to hear what you think of the particular second-order way I'm posing it. I'm not saying (here) that philosophy and religion - a.k.a., prescientific theoretical cognition - is next to impossible (though I think this is likely the case), but that ALL prescientific theoretical discourses pertaining to the human are going to suffer the same fate suffered by prescientific theoretical discourses pertaining to the heavens, to life, to the world, and so on. The prescientific claims you want to hold onto will become obsolete, 'astrological' or 'New Age,' sops sustained by consumer/aesthetic appeal. By what magic should we think we would somehow be exempt from what has hitherto been an inexorable historical process?

    And if we're not exempt, doesn't this mean that the kind of radical adherence to methodological naturalism that I'm advocating is our only ticket to future relevance?

    1. I'm actually writing the scientism piece for you as we speak, so this is nice timing. You put the point as forcefully as ever. I certainly like to think my philosophy is addressing the worst-case scenario. Maybe I'm wrong in thinking that, but I'm not clear that there's an even worse scenario than mine that eliminates meaning and value as opposed to redescribing them in a more useful way (as illusions, etc). I grappled with this in my articles for your blog on posthumanism, when I tried to think of what life would be like without thinking in any of the intuitive ways. The alternative seems to be mystical absent-mindedness, as in Buddhism.

      Anyway, I'm struck by your implicit appeal to pragmatism. When you say that mechanistic talk "allows us to intervene in the world in almost miraculous ways," that's an appeal to the talk's usefulness. If we dispense with the intuitions of meaning and value, even as we favour some ways of talking over others because of their greater usefulness, we'll of course need a counterintuitive way of understanding that usefulness. You're saying that the mechanistic way of understanding the world makes us powerful, but if power is neither good nor bad, because nothing is good or bad in the mechanistic picture, then who cares about power? Indeed, who would care about anything? Cares would be eliminated along with intuitions. There would be, as you say, just the "inexorable historical process." That's what I call the evolution of the undead god. That's the worst-case scenario. But when you bring in pragmatism, you seem to be sliding back into the intuitive picture; that is, you seem to be redescribing the intuitive world rather than eliminating it.

      Likewise, when you speak of our nonscientific capacities for understanding as "theoretically impotent," you're implying that science does better according to certain epistemtic (theoretical) standards, such as truth, simplicity, empowerment, etc. If you're not, then you've got no beef with philosophy or religion, and you're a postmodern pluralist of some kind, as Terence Blake says he's trying to get you to see. Anyway, there would be no standards in your worst-case scenario. So do you even *have* an alternative scenario or is the counterintuitive future literally unthinkable to us, because we keep redescribing things in intuitive ways?

      A scenario is a story, and a story is necessarily subject to aesthetic interpretation. A list of causes and effects isn't a story and so the mechanistic picture of the world isn't a scenario. If we mammals necessarily interpret things in aesthetic terms, because we love to tell each other stories, the purely mechanistic world is literally unthinkable to us. To think of it, we'll inevitably dress it up with our intuitions. If we shed those intuitions, we become posthuman, but that's over the event horizon.

    2. A good example of the dress-up we may be fated to play is indeed the way we should think of this word "mechanism." You say it doesn't presuppose "for/teleology," but I'm not so sure. It depends on your theory of causality. Lee Smolin's written another book recently defending his Darwinian idea of causality, which you might favour, but which goes after the platonic Theory of Everything conception which seems to presuppose a book of nature and thus a lawgiver. On this latter conception, physical laws are eternal rather than emergent regularities in particular environments, like adaptations. At any rate, when we speak of natural mechanisms, we're speaking metaphorically, since we're comparing natural processes to human-made machines. This comparison goes back to deism and the clock-work cosmology.

      The first order of business in my article on scientism is to think of how exactly to formulate your doomsday scenario for nonscientific ways of thinking. I want to know what your worst-case scenario is such that it doesn't presuppose any of the intutive concepts. It's one thing to say we'll inevitably ditch our intuitions after science is through, but it's something else to say how we'll then speak and act.

  4. But again, I don't mean anything pragmatic by talking about power, anymore than you mean anything truth-conditional when using the term 'about.' You can't hang your interpretations on me without begging the question against me. Imagine if I had responded by foisting 'referential presuppositions' on you at every turn. It simply misses the point (though it raises a whole host of independent questions and problems). I fully acknowledge that using these heuristics is inescapable: what I'm denying is your interpretation of them.

    Otherwise, your question, 'What the point?' cuts to the very point of the worst-case scenario. There never was one. You and I happened to have evolved a cognitive system that could very well make the fact of the matter unlivable.

  5. Unlivable because were not getting paid?

    1. I think he means the scientific truth about what we are might be intolerable to us, because we prefer to live in fantasy worlds. That's the problem with being such a curious, imaginative species.

    2. Aye. Not getting a fantasy world. Ie, Not being paid.