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Saturday
May302009

Part 2: Leaping Without Faith

There is no God, no plan for the universe, no plan for my life, no higher meaning that resides in the perspective of an omniscient being, no guarantee that my dreams or hopes will come true or even that I will live tomorrow. I often live my life as if all of these things that are not real are, nevertheless, true. Why is that?  One reason is that people believe in superstitions and even when we know that superstitions are not true, we still act as if they are.

Human beings are constructed so that they repeat what was previously successful. This is a simple rule of behavior, followed by most animals, which was no doubt selected through evolution in preference to other rules, which did not lead to equal reproductive success. If what I do is followed by a positive outcome every once in a while, I may repeat it whenever I can in order to make those every once in a whiles come along more often. If what I do is only coincidentally related to the outcome, I will repeat the behavior as though it caused the outcome. This is called superstitious behavior and the thoughts that accompany the behavior are called superstitions. Superstitious behavior occurs with low probability outcomes of high value - gambling for money, getting hits in baseball, selling houses, overcoming illnesses, having hit records, publishing books, winning wars, etc.

Human beings are plagued by the superstitious mythologies that they make up to try to control events that are often out of their control. This can be counterproductive if the events are, in fact, within their control and they waste time operating within the mythology instead of doing what will make the desired outcome more likely to happen. With most events there is some likelihood of influencing the outcome through human action, although the extent of that influence may be very small.

Guilt and anxiety are unpleasant emotions that are sometimes generated justifiably and sometimes not. Anxiety is the feeling that something bad is going to happen and the desire to reduce the anxiety can be the reason we do something to avoid the bad thing happening. This is a good strategy if, a) it results in reducing the likelihood of the bad thing happening, and/or, b) reducing anxiety has a beneficial effect by itself. Reducing anxiety can have a beneficial effect when high anxiety interferes with good decision making. It can have a negative effect if reducing anxiety results in taking away the motivation to avoid a bad thing happening.

If elements of my lifestyle (smoking, drinking alcohol, not exercising, engaging in unsafe sex) produce anxiety because they raise my fear that I could die, then that's good if it results in me changing my lifestyle to reduce my anxiety (thereby avoiding a risk for premature death) but it is not particularly good if it results in me seeking out testimonials by people who have also engaged in such behaviors but lived a long time as a method of reducing my anxiety (thereby not altering my risk of premature death).

A lot of people's time is spent engaging in behaviors that reduce anxiety but do not alter the likelihood of good or bad things happening. The kind of behaviors I am talking about include praying, reciting to oneself or to others anxiety- reducing, but more or less meaningless, statements (e.g. if it's meant to happen it will; I could live my life following every rule and still get hit by a bus tomorrow, etc.) engaging in efforts to solicit agreement from others (we gain comfort when others agree with our position, even though that may not mean anything about its truthfulness), etc. Needless to say, these kinds of behaviors are counterproductive if they are done instead of doing something that will actually reduce negative consequences or increase positive ones. We continue to do these counterproductive activities because the short-term consequence of reducing our anxiety is more powerful in controlling our behavior than is the long-term consequence of not affecting the outcome of the event.

 

 

 

 

References (2)

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    Lost Coast Review - Commentary - Part 2: Leaping Without Faith

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