I was going to post some philosophical thoughts on the relationship between psychology and religion, mostly about how they’re compatible.  My main point was going to be: that the emergence of religion among living beings can be explained scientifically says nothing about the truth of religion.  But such a post would be very long-winded, and it would certainly get confusing in some parts.  Then again, maybe to some it’s already pretty self explanatory.  However, I’m really just too tired and a bit too uninterested right now to go into it all.

There are a couple reasons I felt compelled to write such a post.  Firstly, I’m reading quite an interesting psychology book called Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga.  It’s filled with many interesting psychology … uh … things.  For example, it seems the emotion of disgust is a purely human trait, and it is possible for humans with certain brain injuries to be incapable of knowing it.  Can you imagine not being able to see anything as disgusting?  Also, it made me question what I said in my last post, that emotional suffering comes from wanting.  I think that, like physical pain, some emotional pain can just be automatic, such as fear or sadness; they can be born from things we don’t consciously control.  I guess you could say they still come from wanting; they still come from the brain wanting the environment to be different.  But it’s not really always so much a conscious wanting.  One could also say that suffering serves the purpose of physical survival, so why do we always try to find spiritual meaning in it all?  I guess that’s a whole different topic…

Anyway, the second reason was that I was browsing Neil Gaiman’s blog, and he wrote this:

Picked up my copy of New Scientist over breakfast this morning (which, along with Fortean Times, is my favourite publication) and found myself puzzling over an article that began

That a complex mind is required for religion may explain why faith is unique to humans.

Which left me amazed and potentially delighted that journalists at New Scientist had succeeded in interspecies communication to the point of being certain that dolphins and whales have no belief in things deeper than themselves, that ants do not imagine a supreme colony at the centre of everything, and that my cats only believe in what they can see, smell, hunt and rub up against (except for Pod, of course, who when much younger would react in horror, with full fur-up, to invisible things), and that there are no Buddhist Pigs, Monkeys or whatever-the-hell Sandy was.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Gaiman’s post… I hadn’t really considered the idea that non-humans might have religious feelings.  It just seems rather… absurd.  But then again, I guess it depends on how you define religion.  We humans tend to believe in a difference between right and wrong.  Why wouldn’t animals?  It’s needed for the survival of the individual and of the species.  I would think it would be part of their psychology.  I guess my puzzle is… where is and what is the nature of the link between believing in a difference between right and wrong and religion?  I’ve met many an atheist who think religion is not just stupid, it’s evil.  But that seems like a religious statement in and of itself; the word “evil” presupposes the existence of an objective right and wrong.  How can anyone truly be atheist while believing in an objective difference between right and wrong?  Wouldn’t true atheism just lead to moral relativism?  Or should psychology by itself lead to moral relativism?  But if atheists who believe in an objective difference between right and wrong are really religious, then wouldn’t animals also be religious, in a very fundemental way?

So I think both Gaiman and New Scientist have some truth; I guess they are differing a bit in what they mean by “faith”.  Very interesting… I had not thought of such things before.

So… that’s that.  The book I’m reading and Gaiman’s blog post there made me want to write a much longer blathering about psychology and religion, but what I just wrote is enough… for now at least.  It’ll give my subconscious something to think about while I’m not.

In other news, my short story No One Was Abendsen goes out to critiquers in the Critters Workshop this week, so I look forward to getting some more feedback.  (Mr. Sawczak was kind enough to provide some very helpful feedback earlier.  Thank you again!)  So by the end of next week I should be ready to write a final draft and start sending it out to magazines.  (I can sometimes be a perfectionist, so I like to say I never really finish a work, I just stop working on it so I can move on.  So, after my final draft, I don’t get any more critiques no matter what so as not to waste time trying to make it perfect for anyone in particular including myself.  Some people send their stories through Critters multiple times, but I must move on!  It’ll never be perfect.)

I started writing another short story, which I mention on Twitter every now and then, but I’m not far enough into it to say much about it because… who know?… I might abandon it later.

And that’s that. 🙂


Anonymous · March 23, 2009 at 4:16 AM

Yeah, who know?

LanthonyS · March 23, 2009 at 11:34 AM

Here I am again 😀

Very short this time! for readability.

1: I agree. Look up Edward Wilson. He wrote a paper entitled “The Biological Basis of Morality”, which attempts (very thoroughly) to describe how we can interpret many elements of our past, and other natural phenomena, as the origins of our current religious/moralistic/societal tendencies. But, as you implied–THERE’S MORE THAN ONE POSSIBLE REASON!! and furthermore, more than one of them is often right; e.g. I go to the store because I want a chocolate bar, that’s a very simple conclusion. In reality, however, I am also thinking, “I really need exercise,” or “Have I been out at ALL today?” or “I could drop in at Steve’s on the way back.”

2: Also read C.S. Lewis, my favourite Christian philosopher! He wrote a paper whose name I can’t recall at the moment (if I do, I’ll report it to you), detailing

a) that we can hardly say what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are … it’s like a piano, whose keys are all ‘right’ at some time and ‘wrong’ at others–it depends on the context, the goal, the piece. As we know, there’s nothing that’s ever “wholly and impenetrably” wrong (except perhaps blaspheming the Holy Spirit… :)).

–and b, that we don’t like to put ourselves in the wrong: instead, we all seem to act by a ‘standard of morality’, and when you say, ‘You broke the rules!’ you can reply ‘No, see, I was ____,’ or ‘It was only because HE _____ed!’ Say ‘You murdered him’, but ‘It was only in self-defense’; we exclude ourselves from the rules, or create Special Exceptions.

What I’m getting at is that I think that requires either a very complex mind, or one devoted to an ideal. Even if a chimpanzee or dog could hold a ‘set of what’s right and wrong for each circumstance’ table in its mind and expect each other member of its species to adhere to it, there’s also not much organization for recompense. I mean, if a fox challenges a bear, “You took my den!” then the bear would simply maul it to death. [There are of course exceptions; for example, animals that live in herds expel ones that aren’t playing fair, or that don’t recognize the pack.]

As for religion itself, when I was young I thought reading to my cat from the Bible would cease its mewling. It didn’t. I concluded that cats don’t understand English. Then I concluded that this paragraph was a lot of non sequiturs.

So I’ll echo the words of the wise Anon above me: “Yeah, who know?”

LanthonyS · March 23, 2009 at 11:35 AM

Oops, that ended up not being ‘Very’ short

anon 2 · March 24, 2009 at 8:07 AM

who know? yes, we can’t.

S P Hannifin · March 25, 2009 at 4:40 AM

Thanks for your comments!!

Yeah, who know?

If God exists and He wanted His creations to recognize His existence, obviously He’d make sure we had brains capable of it, so I don’t think psychologically explaining religion says anything about religion itself. (I guess that’s sort of a repeat of my original post…) But that’s why they’re compatible anyway.

On a tangent, I think there’s this weird limit to our knowledge… we can know that there are some things we are incapable of understanding, but of course we can’t really understand what those things are. And it’s our physical minds which determine this. So no matter how many scientific discoveries we make, no matter how much we study our own behaviors and beliefs and brains, we’ll always be “trapped” in our minds, we’ll always be unable to think about the unthinkable, we’re conditioned to have to live with unanswerable questions. I don’t know if that’s a pessimistic thought or not, but… well… there it is…

Oh yes, I’ve been wanting to read some non-fiction C. S. Lewis for a while. His book The Problem with Pain (I think it’s called) might have some insight into that other post I made. I think the beginning of Simply Christianity sort of echoes what I said, how even atheists tend to believe in an objective moral difference between right and wrong, or an objective truth (or something, been a while since I read the opening pages in a bookstore).

When you say: “we can hardly say what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are … it’s like a piano, whose keys are all ‘right’ at some time and ‘wrong’ at others–it depends on the context, the goal, the piece” … isn’t that just a matter of incomplete knowledge of the situation? I mean, I can confidently say “the goal of wanting an innocent person to die for your own pleasure is wrong in all cases” … and most humans would agree except for psychopaths who have brain problems (and such people do exist… which brings up another philosophical question… is right and wrong different for them?).

On another tangent, isn’t the complexity of the mind meaningless by itself? I mean, it can only be “complex” in comparison to other (animal) minds. Without animal minds to compare human minds to, human minds are neither complex nor simple, they simply are what they are…

Anyway, the more I think about this issue, the more confused I become, so I’ll definitely have to find that C. S. Lewis paper… 🙂

Thank you again for the comments!! 🙂

LanthonyS · March 25, 2009 at 6:29 AM

Oh, I wouldn’t say that “the goal of wanting an innocent person to die for your own pleasure is wrong in all cases”. Or rather, I would, but I wouldn’t say you can tack on a “for”. That gives it a purpose … for example, “hitting Bb” … “for the fact that the score has it written down as the next note” is good, but “hitting Bb” … “for my own personal pleasure” is absolutely wrong for a concert pianist on stage. It’s “hitting Bb” that is ambiguous, and, I think, “having an innocent person die”–in fact, it’s so frequent a theme in fiction that it must have been justified millions of times.

And a different thing, to your second paragraph; I can’t remember who said it (though I read it in Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder), if it was the author or someone she quoted;

“If our minds were simple enough that one could understand them, we would be too simple-minded to understand them.” (Similarly, “If we were intelligent enough to understand our own brains, our brains would be too complex to understand.”)

I really like that quote.

Lastly, C.S. Lewis mentions in the same paper that “Anybody seeing us from the outside would be able to see everything we’re doing, but would be no closer to understanding why” (unless they could understand our speech). Which, I guess, applies back to the animals.

S P Hannifin · March 25, 2009 at 10:36 PM

Why can’t you take on the “for”? Or maybe we could say: actions are never good or evil, intentions are good or evil. It’s not what you did that makes something bad, it’s why you did it. The rub with that is… how can we truly know other people’s intentions? We can’t. But can’t we still say “if that man’s intention was such and such, it was definitely an evil act”? We might not know what the man’s actual intentions were (or are), but can’t we still judge intentions to be entirely right or wrong, and tack on that “for”? We just can’t project that intention onto others with certainty?

Hahahaha, nice quote about the mind!! 😀

About C. S. Lewis’s quote there, yes, I agree… it reminds me of Thomas Nagel’s paper (which I never really read, but heard about) called “What is it like to be a bat?” I think he concludes something to the effect of: who know? We can’t know. Oh well. So I guess the sentiment quite common. (Though I’m guessing his paper was about more than just that.)

LanthonyS · March 26, 2009 at 6:27 AM

That’s fine, but who ever has an evil intention?
I doubt anyone but psychotics has a long-term goal of “hurting people” “for my own pleasure”, and if we count “self-gain” as a wrong intention, we’re all dreadfully guilty (which is of course the central point of most Christian denominations: you’re sick; you need to buy this ointment).

As for short-term goals, if I ever consider my own intention for what I’m doing, then it’s also justified-sounding and innocent-sounding. Does that mean I have no conscious “intention” for, say, picking up a mug of tea, or flicking on the TV, in which case how can I be penalized, or does that mean that I only have good intentions, such as soothe my throat or laugh at Seinfeld?

And what do you do about good intentions that cause harm, for example, I give some money to a beggar and he spends it on cocaine? Or I make a set of comics that offends someone so badly they burn down an embassy?

As always, there’s the practical (pragmatic, if you will), and the ethereal (spiritual, if you will), though I hate to leap to dualism. If both have an effect on our lives, how can we disregard either?

(Rereads paper on Dooyeweerd’s Dimensional Analysis…)

S P Hannifin · March 26, 2009 at 7:46 AM

I’m not sure anyone would admit to themselves that they have long-term evil intentions… I think by the time it gets to be long-term people justify it to themselves to the point of being comfortable with it (or don’t question it at all), but I don’t think it makes their decisions less evil. I think we as humans are very good at making up reasons for things, so if we have an evil intention, we might think of some good reason why we should do it to justify it, and to an outside source it would sound fine, but that’s just lying to ourselves.

As for short term, I’m not sure anyone would have very evil intentions when relaxed and in a good mood, but there are plenty of times we seek to harm others, perhaps as “payback” for something (“he hit me first!” or the waitress spits in the soup of the selfish annoying customer), or perhaps out of jealousy, or sloth, or annoyance (“can you give me that book over there?” “no, get it yourself” (evil by inaction?)), or anger or spite (knock over a pile of someone’s papers, call someone a bad name). Or maybe you harm yourself with “self-gain” (“I think I should eat some more food even though I’m full because I love to eat” … “I think I should drown my sorrows in some alcohol” … “I think I should go on a shopping spree and try to buy happiness” … “I think I’ll watch TV even though I’m not going to finish the chores I’m supposed to be doing”). (That said, I wouldn’t say all “self-gain” is bad… I’m of the philosophy that everything in life is done for self-gain in one way or another; we never do anything we don’t want to. We might also not want to do it for some reason, but there must be some reason we want to as well if we end up making ourselves do it.)

As for good intentions that cause harm… well, I’d say they’re good! And a bad intention that causes good is also bad (the ends doesn’t justify the means).

Again, I think we as humans can be very good at lying and justifying things to ourselves, especially in the long term, but that won’t change whether or not the initial intention was good our evil.

LanthonyS · March 26, 2009 at 11:43 AM

As alluded to above, sure, in the ethereal, good intentions that cause harm are good… but if everybody did that, we’d have a ton of good-natured people and a very miserable world. You simply can’t make an absolute (oops, never mind, rereading that sentence :P) that is true for both; … thought dropped…

And the reverse also… bad intentions that cause good are bad? Isn’t the majority of the Bible, and God’s actions, turning bad intentions into good ends? I think that the final, tangible result has got to be more important in the long run than the intention… but that eventually, the results one tends to generate will tell on their intention.

After all, we all have to have a buffer of “good things” happening… we can make mistakes, even terrible mistakes that result in death, only because millions and millions of good things are happening at the same time (though I wouldn’t say vice versa).

I keep losing my stupid train of thought! I ought to just give up.

Oh, one more complication before I hit ‘Submit!’. In the world of confusing causes and effects, can we ever be certain when we link an intention to a result? If not, we might say that we can just focus on a person’s intention, which gets thrown into the general communal pile and pushes a certain result; or we can count intention as meaningless, since a great deal of results occur with no relation whatsoever to the individual’s intention?

I assume we both have the Sermon on the Mount in the back of our heads, saying, “If you look lustfully at a woman, you’ve committed adultery in your heart; if you hate a man, you’ve committed murder in your heart,” –but we can’t ignore the level on which there’s a difference between a hateful glance and a killing stab!

Which is where intentions cease to matter? I think. Oh dear. My friend walking by comments, “You guys should get a life” 😛

S P Hannifin · March 26, 2009 at 2:34 PM

Hmmm… I was sort of trying to separate the action, or the result, from the intention. The actions, the results, they’re meaningless. We might look upon them as “good” or “bad” in relation to how we want the world to be, but they’re not “good” or “evil” in a moral sense. Every action continues to have consequences throughout time anyway… there are some people who would not have been born were it not for the holocaust, which affected so many people’s lives, and their births may be considered “good” but that doesn’t moral “good” or “evil” of Hitler’s original intentions. And Hitler’s actions continue to affect the world, but his original intentions remain the same (though we may not fully know them) so whether or not they were “evil” remains the same also.

I guess to reword what I said earlier: intentions can be “good” or “evil” in a moral sense, they lead to actions/results that can be “good” or “bad”, not in a moral but rather in a “do I prefer the world to be like it is now?” sense.

So I’m thinking that the intention and the actions/results are not dependent on each other, they’re separate things.

I would say if there are two murderers that are intent on killing and one succeeds, but the other doesn’t, they’re intentions are equally “evil”. By law we can only punish one of the guys as law is based much more on actions, since we can’t look into each other’s heads and judge their intentions. In other words, we are incapable of reacting to other people’s intentions, we can only react to their actions. But (at least this is the stance I’m taking for now) their actions aren’t really good or evil, it’s the intentions we project on them that make them seem so…

What? “You guys should get a life”?? 😀 This is life!! I love talking about this stuff every now and then, even though it really confuses me… 😀

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