Sunday, 10 June 2012

Letter to my Cousin - no thanks, no "horror show" please

Dear Cousin,

Karhun Ukko
our correspondence took us the last month  through a kind of circular walk. We set of with your question How... be certain "what reality is about"? Now, your last comment about spiritual experiences brings us back to the subject of my first letter, namely "what is reality?"

The ability to have spiritual experiences is an easily activated trait of human mind [1], important for our values and perception of the world. Nevertheless it is a state of mind and thus its content is "virtual" although the underpinning process in our body are real. How clearly you describe this, when starting of saying “I have troubles to describe....”.  Being "able to describe" in a manner independent from the individual is a very critical feature of what is reality about. You continue saying “a spirit coming into your own spirit and into your imagination and convincing you about something Godly that transcends reality but can be experienced within yourself.” Thus you capture the functioning of the mental process in our inner, “virtual” world, which generates “flash-like mental insights”.  The ability to generate these “flashes” are important traits of our brain (mind). Possibly developing them was very valuable for our survival along our evolutionary path [2].  

What scares you to read...?
Admittedly, I'm a bit appalled by the quote from the famous and respectable John Updike [3] that you refer to "If God does not exist, this world is a horror show.  This world is not a horror show. Therefore God does exist". Appalling is not the quote itself, but what could be derived from it. Likely John Updike made this statement in the early fifties, thus shortly after World War II, Korea-war being in full swing etc.; and nuclear arms race had started with real threat for mutual mass destruction. That certainly was a time of (its) horrors.  

Before describing why that quote is appalling, I cannot hinder the temptation to point out that its starting statement “If God does not exist, this world is a horror show” is flawed, if it is taken literally in a common religious context. Namely, “no god” would mean “no creation” and thus nothing what could manifest itself as horror or recognizing horror; so logically: “no god”, “no creation” and “no horror show”. Putting this aside; what makes it appalling to consider "that humans need god so that this world is not a horror show"?  

Certainly we can assume that John Updike's statement refers to (our) human societies and not the ample world “before humans” in which and for which ethical considerations and moral appreciations have no meaning. Although, having said that, we have to keep in view that part of the attitudes, which we consider ethical or non-ethical, are found among primates; including warmongering among chimpanzee groups!  Thus possibly human ethical considerations have their precursors from which they emerged before fostering cooperation in groups of early human species. 

Sculpture of the Swedish artist C. Milles
Reading John Updike's statement I feel a bit disgusted because it seems to state that you (and I), our relatives, our fellow human beings need a god to render this world a lesser horror show. That seems to be said. To put it simple – should I assume, that humans behave in a more ethical manner because “god” reminds them to do so? I would consider that as insulting any of my relatives or fellow human beings and their ethical standing. Beyond that sentiment, "cui bono" [*] may be asked when advocating that humans behave in a more ethical manner because “god” reminds them to do so? This question leads to study the various social functions of religion and faith, a matter on which I have dwelt a bit previously.

As a teenager I found in my parents' bookcase a mince book, which I still have in my own bookshelf: written by Lin Yutang [4]. One of its sections, which is critical regarding religious believes could be summarized as: Should you be good person, because you are threatened with hell or rewarded with heaven? Or should you be a good human being on your own thinking?

Faith or God are not needed for behaving like a good person. Most humans know well enough what that implies. Sadly, faith-based reasoning is regularly turned into thought to justify non-ethical behaviour and horror-show? Causes being presented as faith-based are far more difficult to question, thus "cui bono"?

Thus I like to take firmly side - sapere aude [**] , or trying to being a good human on your own thinking. 

with Ukko's best wishes,
your Cousin

[*] Commonly the phrase "cui bono" (Latin) is used to suggest a hidden motive or party responsible.

[**] from Wikipedia: Sapere aude is a Latin phrase meaning "dare to be wise", or more precisely "dare to know". Originally used by Horace, after becoming closely associated with The Enlightenment by Immanuel Kant in his seminal essay, What is Enlightenment?. Kant claimed it was the motto for the entire period, and used it to explore his theories of reason in the public sphere.

[1]  Born believers, Justin L. Barret, New Scientist 39, 17th March 2012

[2]  On mental and thus social side of the evolution of our species; “The social conquest of the earth” by Edward O. Wilson

[3]  from Wikipedia: John Hoyer Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009) was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic. Updike's most famous work is his Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom series, which chronicles Rabbit's life over the course of several decades, from young adulthood to his death. He published more than twenty novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poetry, art criticism, literary criticism and children's books. Hundreds of his stories, reviews, and poems appeared in The New Yorker, starting in 1954. He also wrote regularly for The New York Review of Books.

[4] Lin Yutang (October 10, 1895 – March 26, 1976) was a Chinese writer and inventor. His informal but polished style in both Chinese and English made him one of the most influential writers of his generation, and his compilations and translations of classic Chinese texts into English were best sellers in the West.

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