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Post No.: 0893uncertainty


Furrywisepuppy says:


Uncertainty is unsettling, so we seek ways to alleviate uncertainty. And religion offers us a set menu of answers like to questions pertaining to the meaning of life, how to live a good life and what happens after life, without which we’ll have to personally put in the arduous effort to work out our own answers or find them from elsewhere. Humans are storytelling creatures – and a story needs a point, a direction.


Religious people often worry about where morality and responsibility will come from without religion too. But it can come from democracy, social rules, governments and laws that reward and punish people in this life rather than in a hypothetical next. We can share good advice and moral stories without the sacralised wrapper of religion (e.g. don’t steal otherwise no one will want you around them and you’ll be alone and this’ll hurt).


Beliefs in omnipresent and omnipotent gods and the threat of hell or chaos can help amplify our motivation to be moral, but they can also seem like a false bluff when someone does something immoral yet nothing painful or punitive seems to happen to them. They in fact often seem to be rewarded for their greed or wrath for instance. What’s considered moral needs room to evolve with the advancing knowledge and times too hence democratic laws are more adaptive than religious dogmas.


This is because the tenets of particular religions aren’t really intended to be interrogated and challenged, and thus be subject to change – the rules are supposed to be the rules and followers shouldn’t question them. (As an iconoclastic (or anti-iconoclastic?) aside – should we ever conform to those who suggest we should break the rules?!) They’re not meant to be as if people are making things up as they’re going along. Dogmas generally profess precepts and doctrines that have purportedly withstood the long test of time, hence followers should adhere to them in order to prevent chaos. Of course there are many exceptions but that’s probably why religiously-affiliated people tend to be more politically conservative.


Having said that, we can see from history that religions have, do and will continue to evolve like any other cultural memes do hence why we see the evolution of different branches, sects or denominations of particular religions – so much that followers of the same broad faith (e.g. Christianity or Islam) can eventually differ so much in what they believe is right that they’ll fight against each other about it through sectarian violence (e.g. Protestants versus Roman Catholics, Shiites versus Sunnis). Adaptations occur too (e.g. so-called ‘creation science’ as a reaction to the genuine scientific findings that Earth is far older than 10,000 years old).


Reinterpreting religious texts (which typically contain many ambiguous lines or stories where we don’t always know if they’re meant as literal or not – Post No.: 0864 explains more), focusing on cherry-picked passages, or really whatever self-serving reasons that become accepted by a breakaway group or powerful ruler, can all bring about the evolution of a religion (e.g. King Henry VIII in England reformed the Church to suit his own desires to divorce as he wished!)


However, these changes are nowhere near as dynamic as democratically-decided rules or laws can be. And it’d be nice if violent conflict didn’t occur just because of disagreements about what’s right!


Religious commandments can even evolve into secular law. The variables are far easier to change and will therefore change first compared to the structures – hence why secular institutions currently still bear a structural resemblance to religious ones, like their hierarchical natures. This is kind of like how vestigial limbs can shorten yet still ultimately remain. Because cultures in cultural evolution evolve, in some ways similar to how genes in genetic evolution do through inheritance or passing on – things gradually mutate, build or shift in new directions based on what’s pre-existing rather than from pure scratch, like how humans still get goosebumps on their skin in reaction to the cold despite (most) humans no longer possessing enough hair to trap in a layer of air between their hairs, or how the first mobile phones had physical keypads like computers at the time had before they then evolved to have touchscreen keyboards. And how physical keyboards and touchscreens can co-exist is similar to how a biological species and the species it evolved from can co-exist.


As suggested elsewhere before, the successful secular societies of today would arguably not have evolved if they weren’t historically religious and centralised first. We’ve seen throughout history that all capitalist societies were first built upon a solid foundation of social structures – in particular those built by religions that encouraged cohesion – not the other way around. No prosperous, highly-populated society started from treating everything as commodities for sale from the very start but from family and community structures of caring and cooperation – humans evolved as social animals after all.


But as capitalism has grown, many people who were born into a world not knowing any differently than the capitalist one they were born and bred in have maybe forgotten or have never learnt about these foundations of community structures and so they believe they and we can do without them. Individualism leads to narrow interests over cooperative ones. It’s like a star or arrogant sportsperson believing that they don’t need the rest of their team anymore.


Societies first grow and thrive due to understanding interdependence, and from the fruits of this cooperation, some people eventually get rich for being in the right place at the right time, and then some of these individuals start to conceitedly think they’re better off alone, or at least belong to a smaller and more exclusive group.


This secular evolution towards capitalism, individualism, envy, pride, greed and gluttony has led to or exacerbated problems like global commons environmental problems. It’s not to say that only religion can remind us of our communities; and of course we’re ideally looking for that right balance between individualism and collectivism, and ingroup and outgroup lines.


Anyway, back onto the topic of uncertainty. The feeling of awe is usually pleasant, but it can also be scary because the experience of something vastly bigger than ourselves can make us feel small, overwhelmed and insignificant. It can therefore be correlated with a lower tolerance for uncertainty, which induces spiritual or spiritual-type beliefs in order to explain and mitigate for this uncertainty, such as in a creationist agency (although it can still be quite awe-inspiring too to realise that from a few basic fundamental laws of physics so much complexity and beauty can arise).


Most people again innately find uncertainty or complexity aversive. One’s faith, such as in a God who loves us, and in an afterlife, can be a tremendous source of well-being. The opposite – of having uncertainty about the meaning of life or what’s beyond it – can potentially be a source of great existential anxiety.


But beliefs in absolute certainty – of religious, political or whatever other passionate convictions – and thinking we’re always objectively right in our beliefs and anybody who disagrees with us must be either evil, stupid or misguided, leads to considerable inter-group conflict. It can lead us to be blinded to the views of other groups.


When our worldview feels threatened in some way, we instinctively want to cling harder onto whatever aspects of that worldview we have left (e.g. we cling onto our religious ideologies even more). We’re averse to the feeling that we cannot predict the world properly, and it’s our worldviews that provide us these predictions – they structure our experiences in advance of having them and they guide our decisions.


At times of potential threat (any type of threat, including thoughts of the end of the world, economic uncertainty or a direct attack on one’s beliefs for instance), our religious beliefs (or strong worldviews in general, for anyone whether they consider themselves religious or not, or whether the subject is religious or not) are inclined to tighten or are called to become tighter.


We grip onto our existing beliefs even more firmly or call to look for ways to strengthen the resolve in them when we feel our world or worldviews are being attacked – this is why directly attacking a person’s faith seldom works and in fact often backfires! The feeling of being unmoored in a world of uncertainty and not knowing what to do, choose, what will happen or even what to believe in or think anymore is incredibly uncomfortable for most of us and so we seek to have certain views and worldviews… even if what we’re certain of is untenable due to the empirical evidence, or lack of.


Not that science can provide the answers to every question we like to ask. Science can answer many questions intellectually in a particular sense, but because of the way we’re built, with our innate psychology, there are going to be aspects of our experience that cannot be satisfied by scientific explanations, such as ‘purpose’ and ‘ought’ questions – and this is why religion or religious-type beliefs are likely never going to disappear.


Science should inform and guide our opinions but there are nevertheless no clear objective answers for all types of questions. What we ‘ought’ to do isn’t clarified by science because science doesn’t tell us what’s good or bad – just what ‘is’ – however we define ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (which is the crux of it!)


Science is still the way to answer questions about the naturalistic world though. And when it comes to questions about other domains like ethics – although science cannot objectively answer them – we should still try to use verifiable and empirical facts and sound logic to guide and ground us when we form and refine our own subjective beliefs and values, arguments and decisions. So even though some worldviews cannot be completely objectively verified or perfectly justified, some worldviews are more supportable or supported by evidence and reason than others. For instance, our model of ethics mustn’t contradict what we know about how human psychology works. Facts underdetermine values yet this doesn’t mean that values are, or should be, completely divorced from knowable facts.


We must still in any event remain humble about the parts of our experience that often serve important practical functions in our lives that science cannot answer – like we need answers to questions about how we ‘ought to behave’ to define our laws in order for civilisation to function. Morals aren’t straightforward, hence we should always welcome alternative views, seriously give them some thought and debate, and perhaps incorporate them, rather than instantly dismiss them because they counter what we already believe. Although unnatural, we should always remember that they’re subjective, not objective, beliefs, and so other subjective views are worth listening to and contemplating too. Allow your knowledge and beliefs to evolve or refine as a learner for life. Decisions must be made at the end of the day though. But always be humble, and never be ashamed to shift views if necessary.


Science may be pushing religion into the gaps (religious followers might then respond by continually moving the goalposts to a point where they say science hasn’t disproved something, or react with the backfire effect) but there are still gaps.


Yet even if science cannot answer ‘purpose’ or ‘ought’ questions, it doesn’t automatically mean that theological religious scriptures therefore must contain the answers instead.


However, the cognitive tendency for religious beliefs is built into our innate psychology, and religious dogmas offer us a set menu of answers to questions of uncertainty about our greater meaning or purpose and how we ought to live, as well as more comforting explanations like for what’s going to happen to us after we die, which may be better for our well-being than the dispassionate scientific explanations.


Woof. Science can therefore sometimes paradoxically suggest that we should ignore the science for the sake of our well-being and ingroup harmony(!)


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