What do you know and what do you believe?

Despite the fact, that I don’t trust the Bible’s depiction of Jesus and I don’t really know what is meant by “God,” and I don’t have a religion of my own, I’m not completely anti-religious. In fact, I have had religious experiences, or perhaps a better term is “mystical experiences” since it was not an experience of religion, but an experience of the rationally inexplicable. I am sort of an agnostic with mythological syncretism. It could be said that my mystical experiences are merely the result of luck or fantasy or chemical imbalances, and that could be right, but the great thing about it is that they are purely subjective experiences and therefore, I get to be the ultimate decider.

I have the power!

What I especially dislike about monotheistic religions is the tendency to regulate human behavior. I believe that morality is a subject more aptly dealt with by philosophy. I just don’t like the idea that an all-powerful, all-knowing superbeing would say do this and you go to heaven, do that and you go to hell… forever. First of all, that’s not really a choice and second of all, it makes us out to be nothing but trained monkeys. In this system, you can’t really do anything good at all, since you are doing it to avoid eternal, unimaginably-awful punishment. Essentially it’s a bribe. Following this kind of system does not make you good, it makes you obedient. Does God have so little respect for us?

I am aware also that there is a certain tendency in modern society to look down on religious belief as something of a crutch used by those who are too weak to face the horrors of their own reality. I confess I’ve had that thought myself from time to time. This is an idea that has arisen, I believe, as part of the social upheaval of the industrial revolution, the age of the machine, wherein the old symbolic systems have been shattered. Man, machine and science have taken on a new authority at the center of our conceptual model where god once reigned supreme.

Chocolate Grinder by Duchamp

The rationalization of religion can be seen in these quotes by Freud.

“Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”
–Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1933

“Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. […] If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.”
–Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, 1939

I’m not in total disagreement with Freud, but does he have to be so mean about it? (I certainly don’t think everything can be reduced to primitive, libidinal drives as Freud’s system seems to suggest.) I’m totally willing to admit that religion is a bunch of “fairy tales,” but I also think fairy tales are cool and perhaps helpful to the properly functioning psyche. If it’s the difference between you being a neurotic mess and you being happy, why not be happy? We tend to convince ourselves that the Truth really is out there and is attainable, but is it really?

Physicists have, for quite a long time now, questioned whether or not objective truth is actually possible. There is a limit to what we can see with the naked senses and then yet another limit by what we can see with the aid of technology. Will technology get better? Yes. But will there always be a limit? Can you make the speed of light go faster? In short, I don’t know. I’ve been on both sides of the argument. I’ve read accounts of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle used in justification of both sides of the question.

The Uncertainty Principle (Le Principe d'Incertitude), Magritte

In short, I don’t have a problem with someone believing in “fairy tales”, but I do think it’s unfortunate that people often confuse belief with fact. Most of the time when people say “I know…” what they really mean is “I believe.” For example, I’ve never ever actually seen that the earth is round, and I have not conducted my own experiments to answer that question. I personally don’t know this for a fact. I have good reason to assume it is a fact, but I’ve never actually seen it. The things that I actually know for a fact are very, very few.

I know that I’m smart. I’ve aced plenty of tests in college, and many of them without studying. In other words, I find that more often than not, I am right, but I am not right because I know, instead I am right because I made a good guess based on sound beliefs and reasonable assumptions. This is the case with most people, they just don’t know it. If you keep asking as a child sometimes does… “Well, how do you know that?” (answer) and “how do you know that?” (answer) and “how do you know that?” etc, etc, etc… eventually you realize that you don’t actually know very much of anything. If you allow yourself to really think about it you will see that what you have is a very reasonable model, an approximation of reality, and this model is fundamentally based on belief or assumptions. It is not based on facts that you know personally to be true. Or at least, it is not based on many facts.

This is perhaps why so many people have a problem with understanding how science works. Science has become very important to modern society and naturally so. Look at all we’ve gained from it, especially in areas like medicine. But science is not a system of fixed truths. It is designed to change, to adapt as new information is brought to light. So what we may consider to be “scientifically” verified truth today may turn out to be wrong tomorrow.

At any rate, it’s very important for everyone to realize that their conception of the world is just that. It’s a concept. It’s a map, a model, a system of symbols, a representation. We love our symbols, and they are useful, but we must be sure to break free from time to time and actually see the world for what it is. The problem with symbols is that we come to rely on them too much, even to the point that we refuse truth that contradicts our model of the world.

There on the table, my yellow mug, half full of lukewarm cocoa.

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