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What makes humans tick?

September 11, 2010

Journal in Consciousness StudiesOver the past few weeks, I’ve been engaged in a few conversations that have addressed somewhat of the same thing. At USU SHAFT, in the past, Dr. Kleiner has had a motif of pointing out how many atheists seem to disregard the “human questions.” (Since SHAFT doesn’t seem to allow linking directly to comments, search for kleiner and read his comments in that thread.)

I didn’t (and, to an extent, still don’t) get the impact of “human questions.” I felt that there was a false dichotomy (e.g., recognize a feeling part of yourself and be theists OR be an atheist and think you are nothing more than a machine — or rather, that the machine-ness excludes the feeling-ness.) I’ve hoped that I’ve avoided the dichotomy and avoided ignoring human questions (even if I’m not sure what they are.)

But since then, that has been a conversation that has come up more often. At Priscilla’s and Aquila’s Place, Heidi posted two “competing” spiritual models: Spirituality for Atheists and the Answer to that Point of View. At some level, I wasn’t too fond of the spirituality for atheists side, because I do not really feel any sense of “awe” for nature or whatnot. In my mind, I don’t feel a need to have anything to have the label “spiritual.” I feel the connotations of that word don’t fit anything I would experience. I am not really an enchanted naturalist.

Nevertheless, I don’t agree with Puddleglum in Heidi’s response post (and I had seen Puddleglum posted elsewhere, on Mormon Matters.) 1) The “black pit of a kingdom” isn’t THAT bad and 2) “Narnia” isn’t THAT good. So it isn’t true that “four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow.”

But what was interesting from Heidi’s two posts was that it led to a discussion with a commenter, ID_vs._EGO. At several points, he insisted that “if [he became] atheist, [he’d] just reject the concept and act like the self-promoting animal [he] would be in a materialist cosmos.”

I was baffled by this (and still am). In my opinion, nothing about “not believing in god” leads me to believe that one must also abandon the concept of mind (e.g., “I am”), morality, and so on. Essentially, I don’t see how atheism necessitates a nihilism that isn’t matched with existentialism or absurdism. I think it is a sign of weakness if people hit nihilism and go no further.

Anyway, that was a good discussion because if it led to anything, it led to one thing I suppose I have to hope (or, *gasp*, have faith) in. I have to have faith that, for most people, authenticity includes something relating to other people. (At this point, Bruce @Millennial Star would argue I’m a half-theist or something.) In that way, ID_vs_EGO’s argument that he would go on and “act like the self-promoting animal he would be in a materialist cosmos” doesn’t fit because in a materialist cosmos, he wouldn’t be a “self-promoting animal.” Or rather, in “self-promoting,” he would want to be engaged with others. (e.g., service makes you feel better, so even if you think that’s self-promoting, well…it’s also helping others.)

I guess the way I feel here is this: we are not conforming ourselves to current understanding. We are trying to conform our understanding to ourselves. A “materialist cosmos” doesn’t demand that we act like anything.

…But another thing it led me to realize is that I really just don’t get much of ID_vs_EGO’s thought process. The thought process “atheism -> abandon all hope ye who enters” doesn’t make sense. The thought process “recognize human question -> accept a soul/the supernatural” doesn’t make sense to me. So arguments from ID_vs_EGO (and, to an extent, Dr. Kleiner) that point that out don’t even phase me because I can’t even comprehend them.

I had another conversation more recently at a private board (and therefore I can’t link to the direct discussion), but the commenter was really caught up on consciousness as well. He had a bunch of links from Robert Wright where Wright tries to get whomever he’s addressing to admit that consciousness is just such a big problem and it’s insurmountable to science and blah blah blah.

The commenter wanted people to agree with him that this issue was enough to grant a soul separate from the brain and with that a slew of other things, at at the very least, it was enough to grand that it’s ok if one imagines such an explanation and wants imagination to be true. I wasn’t quite so sure about that.

Throughout all of these different conversations, the common thread has been that someone wants to point out that humans are essentially something else…and without recognizing this, we can fall into the trap into thinking that we’re just like everything else (with disastrous consequences, presumably.)

And I just haven’t gotten that…such a statement has had little impact, because I couldn’t wrap around the thick of it. That is, until I read about something else.

Evolutionary Psychology.

Evolutionary psychology, as far as I can tell, tries to explain human behaviors, emotions, thought processes, and whatnot in terms to evolutionary advantages that those things may have had to us in the past (but which now have led to unintended side effects.)

Evolutionary psychology is controversial, as far as I can also tell, because the explanations seem like “just so stories“.

I’m not a scientist or anything, but to me, reading about evolutionary psychology points out the absurdity of putting humanity in an animal box. Not saying I believe in woo and magic now, but to the extent that some people want to reduce human psychology to evolutionary narratives, I feel like there may be something incredibly flawed with the entire endeavor.

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  1. Do you believe that humans are something more than a highly evolved life form?

  2. no, but I also don’t think we know even a majority of the story behind what being “highly evolved” means.

  3. Quite possible. I’m reading The God Delusion right now, and I’m definitely a member of the choir to which he is preaching at this point, but the parts where he talks about his evolutionary psychology theory of religion, although they could make sense, are still educated conjecture. It feels like stuff that is just fun to speculate about, given that you already accept the concept of evolution. The more specific it gets though, the more likely it is to be way off.

    His idea of altruism being a misfiring of evolved characteristics brought about by natural selection pressures of living in small groups is interesting, to be sure, but it really feels like conjecture to me.

  4. I probably wouldn’t go so far, but sometimes, when I read these kinds of conjectures, I get as baffled as when I read apologetics. Like, “OK, so you made it fit, but…who really believes that?”

  5. Chris permalink

    It’s easier for me to believe an evolutionary psychology “conjecture” than something from religious apologetics. Evolutionary theory, as far as I know, is quite a powerful predictable model for the diversity of life. I’ve read examples of scientists saying things like, “if evolutionary theory is true, then we should expect to find this type of fossil in this area of the world or we should discover this or that about genetics… etc.” And they do confirm these predictions.

    So…I don’t think all conjecture is of the same value when we take into consideration the basis for that conjecture. When a psychologist speculates about human behavior using evolutionary theory as his foundation, I think his ideas have more credibility than much of apologetics. It’s not as if evolutionary psychology is assuming an evolutionary hypothesis to be true. Evolutionary theory is a testable model that works because of the plethora of evidence we have.

    There still are assumptions to be made in science – some people like to refer to assumptions as faith though. But I don’t think all assumptions are created equal. It’s one thing to assume that humanness/morality/feelings were derived because there were evolutionary advantages for their existence and it’s entirely another thing to say that humanness/morality/feelings come from the God hypothesis. The distinction is evidence.

  6. The problem is that evo psych can give a story that “just happens to fit” in any situation. Something the matter? Well then this alternative story will also happen to fit so well!

  7. Bnielson permalink

    Dear Andrew,

    Yes, I believe you are a half theist – no something about it.



    P.S. That’s a large compliment, even if you haven’t realized it yet. You could do worse than believing in something.

    P.P.S. Puddleglum Rocks!

  8. I guess I’ll figure out a way to appreciate such a compliment.

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