Monday, 1 December 2014

It Will Always Be With Us

I had a bit of a disagreement yesterday which was partly down to me, partly down to the nature of the medium used and partly down to other stuff.  It was basically that someone got annoyed because she thought I'd said that everyone was either a narcissist or religious, which isn't what I meant.  I don't want to go into this now, but I do want to mention something else which I think is problematic.
I have at different times been religious and very opposed to religion.  Sometimes I've even been both at the same time.  It is in fact very easy indeed to be against religion and I sometimes surprise myself at how I'm not.  There was a twelve-year period during which I thought Christianity, and more specifically St Paul, was the worst thing to happen to this planet since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  That is, it was responsible for the culture which was causing the current mass extinction, so it was about as good as a rock the size of the Isle of Wight hitting us and twenty miles a second or something.  I wasn't keen on it at all.  Earlier in my life I'd been about equally unkeen on Islam mainly due to its misogyny.  In the end, of course, I came round, and this is something people don't understand and which I'm not going to explain right now.  Circumstances may change in such a way that I will be put in a position where it would be OK to explain, but they have yet to arise and I don't particularly want them to, so some of that is just going to have to stay mysterious.

Nevertheless, and I have to admit I'm getting a sense of déjà vu here and I reckon you'll find another blog entry or vlog of mine on this somewhere, I think that all of that misses the point.  It could be argued that people getting cancer or killed in earthquakes is not a good thing, and consequently one might wish to avoid carcinogens or fault zones, but the latter at least is hard to eliminate and will be a risk on this planet for billions of years to come.  All you can do is avoid them, perhaps by building one of these:


Credit:  NASA - will be removed on request.

So there is a technical solution to that.  However, the people living in that thing would probably be talking or signing to each other, singing songs and listening to music, possibly wearing jewellery and the like.  They will be partaking of, in other words, cultural universals.

In 'Unspeakable', my recently drafted novel, Su boards a space ark, the יָפֶֿתֿ נָשִׁים (geddit?) in the Tau Ceti system heading for Earth.  It only takes thirty years to get here.  The thing about the Tau Ceti system, and I mean this in reality, is that it is cluttered with debris, so if you pilot a spaceship through it you are likely to get clonked in a mass-extincty stylee and be dead a lot.  I would think this would quite worry people, and they might take precautions against it but it might not be totally preventable and there would be a risk.  Right now, the inhabitants of a space ark entering the Tau Ceti system might pray, if they believed in God.  It might not work, of course, but they might feel better until a space pebble wangs them, all the air leaves and they suffocate, and presumably while all the air is leaving and they're suffocating, they might get around to doing a bit of praying then too, and if they do that rather than try to plug the hole, well, maybe natural selection might remove the gullibility gene that way.  However, this book is of course not generally set in the present day and the people living on the יָפֶֿתֿ נָשִׁים aren't religious (incidentally, can someone tell me if I've got that the right way round please?).  Or are they?  They believe that if anyone on board says "יָפֶֿתֿ נָשִׁים", the ark will get hit by an asteroid and everyone will die.  This is because I see that kind of thing as a cultural universal.  Every society will develop something like that in the end, and, and this is the crucial point, it doesn't matter whether it's true or not because it will just happen.  That's what we do, because we're human beings.  We think magically.  We want to be able to control things and stop bad things from happening, and if we haven't got a technological way of doing that, we will make one up.  Sometimes that will be a wheel or a handaxe, but sometimes it will be a magic spell or a prayer, and I think it will always be with us.

It may of course be really, really bad that it's always with us.  Someone might have a seriously ill child and not take them to the doctor because they think that reflects a lack of faith, and then their child might die of something which wouldn't have killed her otherwise, or someone might decide that loving members of your own gender sexually needs to be addressed by chopping someone's head off, and that isn't good either.  Nonetheless, nor is being killed by an earthquake or cancer, and these are "acts of God" or natural phenomena.  Well, in a similar way, religion, ritual, superstition, all those things and more, are also "acts of God", whether or not God exists.  They are, I think, ineradicable features of human society.  The chances are that sooner or later, you and I, particularly the latter, are likely to acquire an incorrect, superstitious belief and will not have any insight into that fact, because that's how the human mind works, and furthermore, for a lot of people this belief will not be reinforced or even acquired through reason or logic, but through social factors.  You might be surrounded by fellow Tories who also believe the unemployed are lazy, fellow Labour party members who also believe kicking the poorest while they're down is an essential step towards a socialist utopia, or fellow late Victorian physicists who believe in the luminiferous aether.  The point is not the truth or otherwise of the beliefs, but their socially cohesive power.  They make you part of an in-group, or they comfort you, or something else, but they all fulfil a social function.

Nowadays a perpetual motion machines are almost universally considered to be completely impossible. I can remember looking at designs as a child and it seemed like the objections were little quibbles which could be repaired, and maybe they were, but when they were repaired other design "flaws" would become evident, which were not in fact flaws at all but just illustrated the fact that in energy terms, there is no such thing as a free lunch.  There will always be a "leak" somewhere which will cause the machine to run down.  This is widely accepted and generally appeals to good sense.

However, we also imagine that we can be rational sometimes, or even all of the time, and that societies would be better off that way.  Clearly a society where children are not beaten for holding things with their left hands is in that respect better than one where they are, but that society will not be totally rational throughout.  There will be another practice or feature somewhere which is not rational.

Therefore, religion in some form will always be with us, and we can't do anything about it.  Given that, we need to live with it and stop pretending we don't do it ourselves.  Back when I was a metaphysically naturalist atheist, I also thought Homo erectus had had an interstellar civilisation for hundreds of millenia.  I no longer believe in that, but I do believe in God instead.  It's not how my mind works particularly, just how minds generally work, and how societies work.  People gang up and develop beliefs that bind them together and it's an illusion, perhaps even a superstitious one, that they can be eliminated or that you will not have at least one.  That's why it's called "religion":  it binds people together.