Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Religious Realities and Scientistic Fantasies

Things still haven't settled back down to normal in the Gagdad household, so I've randomly selected a post from two years ago that looked like it might need some work to get it up to speed. In it, I was trying to say something important, but it's kind of a subtle and counter-intuitive idea that can easily be misunderstood. So let's clean it up and see if it makes more sense this time.

To tip you off up front, it has to do with the paradoxical idea that a robust imagination must precede the intellect if you want to become a fully functioning human. Conversely, the modern notion that we could ever describe the universe without imagination is, ironically, a naive and simplistic fantasy.

A fundamental problem for human beings is that magic, iMAGInation, and illusion are actually their "default" state, while reality and disillusion are only learned (which is why science appeared so late in history, and only in the Judeo-Christian West). This is a subtle argument, so please pay attention. It's one of the keys to the Enigma of Man, who is ultimately responsible for imagining all of reality, so that if his imagination is undeveloped or misused, he will fail in his gnocturnal O-mission and miss the whole point of being here in this dreamscape. It's a huge responsibility, but someone's gotta do it.

Just remember, we are speaking in great generalities, which is always the case in metaphysics, which involves the most general statements one may make about reality. You may even think of what I am about to say as a "modern fable" about our psychic origins, a fruitful myth of psychogenesis. So just judge it by its fruitfulness, i.e., its suitability for intellection.

Because human beings are born in a neurologically immature, completely helpless state, we are steeped in illusion and fantasy while our brain and nervous system are being assembled. Early experience is "hardwired" in, so that the substrate of the human mind is built on the illusion that we are not really helpless and powerless, but that our painful and frightening needs will be magically alleviated through our wishes and desires. No one is as (potentially) powerful as an infant, since an infant is omnipotent.

For example, we are cold, lonely and hungry. We cry. Suddenly we are swooped up, carressed, comforted, and spoken to in a soothing manner. Nourishment appears out of nowhere, converting painful stomach contractions into pleasant fullness, while at the same time we are bathed in the radiance of a soft, enveloping, benign universe we will eventually know as "mother." But at this point it doesn't have a name, since we obviously don't even possess language yet. It just is. It is the psychic ground from which the (m)other will only gradually emerge.

Given what Winnicott called "good-enough mothering," we will gradually become “disillusioned” from the idea that we are the center of the universe, that our feelings are urgently important to other people, that life is fair, that it is possible for all our needs to be magically taken care of -- that it is possible for heaven to exist on earth. Under ideal circumstances, we will first have the edenic experience described above, only to be gradually awakened from it in a non-traumatic way, as the reality principle seeps in little by little. A conservative is born!

For a variety of reasons, other children will never experience this blissful paradise, experience it only sporadically and unreliably, or be traumatically banished by the premature impingement of reality (which is usually a result of a failure of parental empathy, which in turn is likely rooted in their own infantile trauma; it is difficult to give to others what one has never experienced).

For such individuals, there will always be a painfully nostalgic, pre-articulate longing for what they missed, the infantile utopia in which frustration does not exist and desire is instantly converted to satisfaction. A few of these individuals will be lucky enough to obtain lifetime tenure at a major university, but the rest must deal with an unyielding world that does not and cannot mirror our unresolved infantile needs, for they are literally "infinite" and without boundaries.

I think this underlying template of infantile illusion has a lot to do with false beliefs. Not merely false in the sense of “untrue,” because no one can know everything, and it is not possible to get through life without holding some beliefs for which there is no proof or which will later be proven wrong. Plus, healthy fantasy plays a vital role in the ability to imagine and engage with the Real. What I am talking about is not so much false beliefs as what might be called “motivated stupidity.” These are beliefs that are not only untrue, but could not possibly be true, and yet, are embraced just as fervently as any truth. You might call this the realm of "lower vertical fantasy."

In fact, one of the giveaways that we are dealing with motivated stupidity is that the false belief is held onto more fervently than a demonstrably true belief. Someone who thinks something is true is generally more than willing to submit the truth to scrutiny and to allow reality (i.e., the Real, not to be confused merely with the exterior world, the fallacy of scientism) to arbitrate. But when a belief rooted in motivated stupidity is challenged, it raises the psychological hackles of the individual, triggering a cascade of easily observable defense mechanisms: projection, denial, splitting, rage, etc.

I think the problem of motivated stupidity especially afflicts contemporary liberalism. President Bush is not Hitler. He is not, as Cindy Sheehan said, "the biggest terrorist in the world." The war in Iraq is not being waged for the purpose of enriching his "wealthy friends." "Global warming" did not cause hurricaine Katrina (in fact, global temperature has been unchanged since 2001). President Bush is not a racist. Unlike liberals, he doesn't hate Condi Rice or Clarence Thomas just because they're black. Contrary to what John Edwards says, there are not 200,000 veterans living under bridges that are crumbling on them. Women don't earn "87 cents on the dollar," more jobs are created than lost as a result of global trade, third world poverty is not caused by our wealth, and the environment is getting better, not worse.

True, we are in a crisis, but as always, it is a crisis of stupidity.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, it is much more difficult to do battle with a weak mind than a strong one. You understand their assumptions but they don't understand yours, so you inevitably end up on their level and thus on their home court. Plus, weak thinkers embrace their false ideas in a manner disquietingly similar to religious groups who predict the second coming, or the arrival of space ships, or the Cubs winning the World Series, but who do not modify their beliefs when the event fails to come about. In fact, it is a well-known observation that a few of the disappointed may depart from such a group, while the majority only become more thoroughly entrenched in their belief system, defending it all the more stridently. No matter what happens, attendance never dwindles at Wrigley Field, and liberals believe in Keynesian economics.

What this obviously means -- obvious to a Raccoon, anyway -- is that the primary purpose of worldly beliefs is not necessarily to comprehend reality. Rather, secular ideologies are superimposed on a deeper ground of emotional need for comfort, predictability, and meaning. There is a deep emotional need for the world to make sense, even if the explanation actually makes no sense outside its own closed cognitive circle. This is why people throughout history have believed such systematic nonsense. (This also touches on the critical importance of a revealed belief system, but I won't get into that at the moment.)

(I wish I had time to get into details, but Thomas Sowell's wonderful new book, Intellectuals and Society, just eviscerates the pervasive fantasies that uphold leftist thought. I wish someone would drop several thousand copies from helicopters over each of our elite universities -- preferably the hardcover edition, so they could inflict maximum damage.)

What sets humans apart from the animals is not just our ability to know reality, but our even more striking ability to not know it -- to create patently erroneous systems of thought that we then inhabit, and which actually compromise our survival prospects or reduce the quality of life (cf. Sick Societies, by Edgerton). No lion ever entertained the idea that it might be healthier to live on grasses rather than flesh. Penguins don’t decide to live near the equator, where it isn’t so cold. Only human beings can hold ideas that are completely illogical and self-defeating, since only human beings are desperately in need of an ideology, or "mental-emotional environment," to organize the external world and their internal experience, irrespective of whether it is actually functional or true. One way or another, false beliefs are the crock-in-trade of the clinical psychologist. Virtually all patients are in pain because of false beliefs.

In fact, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the majority of beliefs human beings have held about the world down through history have been false, usually ridiculously so. For example, just consider medicine. Until the early 20th century, the average visit to a doctor was likely to leave one in worse shape, not better. But useless or harmful treatments helped people cope with their otherwise intolerable anxiety, and were obviously psychologically preferable to the frightening truth: that no one actually knew why you were sick or how to cure you.

Last night, while watching parts of the Democratic debate, I wasn't just struck by the vacuity of the combatants, but equally importantly, the low intellectual level of the MSM questioners. In all of these debates, nearly all of the questions come framed in wacky leftist assumptions, as if they are just natural to the human condition instead of a perverse aberration. Why doesn't someone ask, "where in the Constitution does it say that the federal government is permitted to run healthcare?," or "on what grounds do you think it is permissible for the government to steal people's money at gunpoint in order to fund your collectivist fantasies?"

So there is something about human beings that makes them uniquely susceptible to bad ideas. Therefore, it would appear to be axiomatic that there must be something about bad ideas that is paradoxically adaptive. But adaptive to what? Clearly, they are adaptive to internal reality, to the emotional needs and anxieties of the person who holds them. Leftists don't really want Bush to be Hitler. They need him to be. Desperately. As uncomfortable as it is, it is far preferable to being left alone with their own internal infantile anxieties, with nowhere to project them. The internal world is just as real and enduring as the external. Thus, it will be interesting to see what they do with their hallucinatory hatred should a Democrat win the White House. Suffice it to say, it won't just go away, since that's not how mind parasites operate.

In fact -- and this should go without saying, but it doesn't -- the internal world is ultimately the source of the external world, since, if we remove the human subject, there is no world at all. Unless we deeply understand the nature of this human subject -- both vertically and horizontally -- including its genesis, its potential pathologies, and its ultimate purpose, we will end up not knowing where we came from, why we're here, or how to get where we are supposed to go; in short, our origins, our present being, and our cosmic destiny.

These are questions that genuine religion is here to answer. Or, to put it another way, manmade fantasies that try to answer these questions end up becoming false religions.

12 Comments:

Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Here's today's psychic disinfectant from Sowell.

2/02/2010 08:34:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Apropos, is this discussion between Megyn Kelly and Gloria Allred, talking about the commercial that's supposed to air during the Superbowl. Allred's argument is telling - she frames everything in terms supporting the murderous side of the equation:

MK: You don't object to her choosing life, right? I mean, you don't like abortion, right?...

GA: I do support a woman's right to choose to have an abortion or not to have an abortion.

She can't even bring herself to use the words "life" or "baby." And at another point, she basically expresses the view that motherhood is a form of slavery ("mandatory motherhood" or "compulsory motherhood") when abortions are illegal.

The reasonable disagreements just fly right past, and you can see how she completely digs herself in to her position. It's a teflon intellect.

2/02/2010 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger jwm said...

What is political correctness but a ham handed attempt to force reality to conform to a warped ideological template? In the PC world view it is necessary to believe that men and women are the same. Wealth causes poverty. Two men can make a marriage just like a man and a woman make a marriage. The list goes on.
It's like Cinderella's ugly step sisters hacking off parts of their feet so the glass slipper will fit. Only the ugly step sisters of political correctness want to hack my feet to fit their shoe.

JWM

2/02/2010 09:35:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Julie--

Yes, plain speaking and liberalism are antithetical, and one should never trust a person who won't speak plainly. The problem for liberals is that if they do speak plainly -- e.g. Air America -- normal people are repulsed.

This is why liberals generally have to hide behind obfuscation, or newspeak, or woolly-headedness, which they flatter themselves by calling "nuance."

2/02/2010 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...

Not sure what this really means, but one of the more significant technical breakthroughs recently originated in Turkey. Nano-scale molecular glass coating will likely revolutionize materials science, with a big impact on an almost endless array of consumer items.

India is also showing signs of picking up slack as US drifts further off course... (but don't count US out yet -- Obama may prove to be Carter II, the grim prelude to another glorious 25-year growth spurt). Actually I'm glad they're doing advanced research in places like Turkey. Everyone wins, and it sure beats becoming a splodey-dope.

2/02/2010 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger Lynn said...

Northern Bandit said... "...but don't count US out yet -- Obama may prove to be Carter II, the grim prelude to another glorious 25-year growth spurt"

Mark Steyn has a great piece today making the point that if we wind up being "counted out", it will be our own choice.

"...as Charles Krauthammer said recently, “decline is a choice.” The Democrats are offering it to the American people, and a certain proportion of them seem minded to accept. ..."

"...in the words of Arnold Toynbee: “Civilizations die from suicide, not from murder."


THE SEDUCTIONS OF DECLINE

2/02/2010 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Lynn, there's another good Toynbee quote in there which I think goes nicely with today's post, too:

He recalled the mood of Her Majesty’s jubilee as follows: “There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.”

Not so different, in a way, from the mentality of those who a year ago seemed to believe having Obama as president would usher in their longed-for utopia.

2/02/2010 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger robinstarfish said...

...or the Cubs winning the World Series...

I know, I know, but as much as my mind insists it's impossible, my heart can't let go.

I choose to grasp this fantasy with all my fingernails.

Meanwhile, I hit a thousand today. Not even Sosa could do that, cork or no cork.

2/02/2010 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Hey, I never touched his bat!

2/02/2010 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Susannah said...

"In all of these debates, nearly all of the questions come framed in wacky leftist assumptions, as if they are just natural to the human condition instead of a perverse aberration." Pretty good description of the tone on NPR, actually. Conservatism is studied as a curiosity, if at all, in the odd interview here and there. I don't even listen anymore. It's of no use to anyone halfway in touch with reality. "Rather, secular ideologies are superimposed on a deeper ground of emotional need for comfort, predictability, and meaning. There is a deep emotional need for the world to make sense, even if the explanation actually makes no sense outside its own closed cognitive circle." Excellent insight. It also helps me to understand some of the more deterministic Christian mindsets I have encountered recently.

2/02/2010 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

"What sets humans apart from the animals is not just our ability to know reality, but our even more striking ability to not know it -- to create patently erroneous systems of thought that we then inhabit, and which actually compromise our survival prospects or reduce the quality of life (cf. Sick Societies, by Edgerton)."

This ability, to get along with our lack of knowledge as if there were no lack, is made to order for working with this,

"So there is something about human beings that makes them uniquely susceptible to bad ideas. Therefore, it would appear to be axiomatic that there must be something about bad ideas that is paradoxically adaptive. But adaptive to what? Clearly, they are adaptive to internal reality, to the emotional needs and anxieties of the person who holds them."

, and if not recognized, a particularly bad brew is cooked up and dished out with this,

"In fact -- and this should go without saying, but it doesn't -- the internal world is ultimately the source of the external world, since, if we remove the human subject, there is no world at all."

That lack is what I was trying to identify in my latest Athens and America: The Bog Of The Gaps (with apologies to Sal's eyes ;-) ), that there is a shared lack of knowledge between us today, and the Athenians of Pericles' time, which our Founding Father's generation didn't share, and it's ushering us into a similar 'fate', the only one which will ever be spun from demagogues: chaos.

As Reagan said “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so.”

Unless you have a firm foundation in a Metaphysics which reflects reality, and mental habits of continually checking to see that your latest 'good idea' is consistent with reality and the rest of what you know to be true, you will be 'uniquely susceptible to bad ideas'... and here's a newsflash for our leftishly inclined:
Every bad idea people have, they have them because they think they're good ideas!
If you won't allow that there is True and False, Right and Wrong, Good and Evil... then how can you possibly know what is a good idea or a bad idea beyond what simply appeals to your preferences? Another newsflash: You don't always prefer what is Good!, and insisting on what you prefer to be true, as being true... well, the logical results if stated would unavoidably invoke Godwin's law.

2/03/2010 05:45:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

Yep, big thumbs up on Sowell's "Intellectuals and Society", one line which sums up the previous point of using a lack of knowledge as perfect cubby holes for what we'd prefer to be knowledge, "... Here again, verbal virtuosity transforms an opposing argument, rather than answering it with either logic or evidence..."

Spin city.

2/03/2010 05:58:00 AM  

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