Thursday, May 13, 2010

Trapped in the "I"

We came across an interesting piece in the Washington Post the other day, in which the author (Kathleen Parker) described the efforts of NPR religion reporter Barbara Hagerty to find "proof of God." According to Parker:

"In her book, "Fingerprints of God," Hagerty tries to answer a question that has plagued her for years: Is there more than this? She couldn't accept mainstream science's answer that we are 'a collection of molecules with no greater purpose than to eke out a few decades.' Instead, she sought out spiritual virtuosos (people who practice prayer, religiously), as well as neurologists, geneticists, physicists and medical researchers who are using the newest tools of science to discern the circumstantial evidence of God.

Her research led to some startling conclusions that have caused no small amount of Sturm und Drang among those who believe theirs is the one true way. She found that whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way. The same parts light up and the same parts go dark during deep meditation.

Apparently, we have a 'God spot' and 'God genes.' And though some are more generously endowed than others, spiritual experience is a human phenomenon, not a religious one. Different routes to the same destination.

Understandably, these are not glad tidings to some. Centuries of blood have been shed for the sake of religious certitude. But transcending the notion that only some prayers are the right ones might get us closer to the enlightenment we purportedly seek."

So far, so good. Indeed, this section could easily pass for content on this very blog, so closely does it hew to the notion that religion is simply an illusion created by humans to divert their gaze from the meaninglessness (and capriciousness) of reality.

However, the next sentence literally left us agog: "Hagerty is optimistic that science eventually will demonstrate that we are more than mere matter."

Honestly, we sat staring at the page, mouth hanging open, for more than a few seconds. Here was someone who devoted a significant portion of her life to searching for an answer to this question (including taking a leave of absence from her job to research and write a book about it!); yet, when all the evidence (not 75%, or 80%, or even 99.99%) pointed to one inescapable conclusion, she...dismissed it. Good. Freakin'. Lord.

Let's be clear. This is not some discussion of opinion, this was a woman who embarked on a planned and scientific expedition, theoretically in search of the "truth." But when all the evidence points to one (and only one) conclusion, she...decided to ignore it. As she put it: "I have concluded that science cannot prove God--but science is entirely consistent with God." Ah.

To be fair, we have not read the book (and have no plans to do so). However, it seems fairly clear that Hagerty (who was raised a Christian Scientist and now considers herself merely a Christian) was not, in fact, looking for truth, but rather to advance her own point of view. No harm there, of course, but we do find it fairly consistent with regard to people's reaction to the absurd.

The question is, why? The answer, as we see it, is that to deny the existence of God (ie, something beyond the physical) is to also deny the existence of the self. If there is no afterlife, no greater power, no "other," then the concept of the self simply fades away into ridiculousness.

This is actually a pretty simple concept to understand. In fact, we had an interesting window into it a few years back when our dog died. We "adopted" her when she was six weeks old, so she essentially lived with us for her entire life, and she was a wonderful dog--sweet and playful, if not particularly obedient...So where, we wondered, did this personality go when she died?

See, this is the thing. The illusion of the self is so powerful, so all-encompassing, so vital to people's ability to function, that most people simply cannot conceive of life without it. Thus, we invent ever more elaborate schemes to justify our belief in something for which there exists not one shred of empirical evidence. This, of course, is what religion has always been about--believing something for no good reason (i.e., "having faith") to make ourselves feel better.

This is why Hagerty's "project," to be frank, bothers us (yes, smart-ass, we realize we don't exist either...) - she was basically attempting to put a scientific sheen on religion, and when that failed (when she could not, in other words, come up with a single thing to which she could point and say "See!"), she simply redefined the terms of the game. Oldest trick in the book, actually (God works in mysterious ways...), but others should not fall for this transparent (and, ultimately, kind of sad) sleight of hand.


  1. Rick,

    It seems here you overlook the fact that - for many people, at least - if God doesn't exist then meaning doesn't exist. I don't think a writer like Hagerty fears losing the self as much as she fears losing a reason for living, and the latter (not the former) is the reason she ultimately sees God's thumb print.

    Besides, shouldn't her serious pursuit for answers (however foolish her conclusions might be), be applauded?


  2. MM-

    It's not that we overlook this point, but rather that Hagerty does - in other words, the fact that she is unaware the illusion of the self is the root of her confusion does not make it any less true. For if there is no self, then how would we even define meaning, let alone search for it? The quest for meaning is driven by our irrational (yet incredibly seductive) sense that there is something beyond the physical, which we call identity.

    To your second point, we disagree that hers is a serious pursuit for answers; instead, she set out to verify her own beliefs, then changed the goalposts when she failed to find what she hoped. She is emblematic of many people who may honestly believe they are interested in truth, but are actually looking for comfort that does not exist (i.e., the universe is actually not a cold, heartless, vast expanse of nothingness, but is rather ruled by some all-powerful being who looks out for us.)

    There are none so blind as those who will not see...

  3. Rick,

    You wrote: "The question is, why [Hagerty was not looking for truth, but simply trying to prove the existence of God]? The answer, as we see it, is that to deny the existence of God (ie, something beyond the physical) is to also deny the existence of the self."

    First, I've seen plenty of staunch atheists who are obsessed with the self.

    Second, can't we imagine Hagerty finding a grand meaning in the destruction of the self, and writing books about that?

    In regards to the second point, I still can't condemn her effort to join science and God - in an attempt to find grand meaning - despite her conclusions.


  4. I don't understand.. very few people could truly embrace the Absurd, if I am understanding it correctly. Most people are simply too attached to their lives and value systems.

    If there's no moral imperative to undertake to "save" or "enlighten" anyone, why not just let people enjoy their comfortable fantasies? I never understood Sartre's "ethical" directive to promote "freedom" in individuals either.

  5. I believe I do exist...just not for all that long.

    The "I" of today is not the "I" of tomorrow, but its awful close.

    Yes the universe will fade into 30 billion years. So it and we are here for now and despite our ephemeral nature, the rate of decay is so slow that the choices of yesterday do impact the reality of today.

    I highly doubt I could live comfortably without the concept of "I" for very long. Women I impregnate, people I make promises to, and people I piss off would all increasingly act to narrow my potential actions by ensuring everyone I'd yet to impose upon would know not to have anything to do with me. In little time I'd be alcoholic and homeless. That's a difficult position from which to become the CEO of Microsoft or an NFL player. Unless of course, your an kick ass genius or have a tremendous body which I sadly am not and do not have...

    So while I do agree there's no meaning to this universe of ours, I simply can't see what pretending like human individuals aren't patterns with predictable behaviors will do to improve things.

    Because my potential is not unlimited my potential then exist along a narrow range of possibility. The limits of my potential create the "I" that I experience.

    Not that my mind can't be changed! So please show me where I'm wrong.

    Thanks for the opportunity to discuss these ideas!

  6. Hmm...many interesting things here...

    First - MM - atheists who believe in the self are as deluded as those who attend church on Sunday and think they have a better shot at eternal bliss than those who do not. Said a different way--this is not a consistent belief system.

    Regarding Hagerty's project, our problem is with its faux-scientific nature - she pretends to be really looking for the answer (maybe she even believes this), but is simply seeking confirmation of her own biases. We don't find that particularly praiseworthy...(The concept of finding meaning in the lack of self, meanwhile, strikes us as self-contradictory - how can one have meaning without existence?)

    Anonymous- Agreed. We have no truck with people's "comfortable fantasies" (exemplified by Cypher's admission, in The Matrix, that "ignorance is bliss"); what bothers us is Hagerty's putting her project out there as scientific when it was clearly a means to a particular conclusion she then chose not to accept. So rather than simply having "faith," she tried to prove the truth of her beliefs; when this failed she moved the goalposts.


    Why do you assume the man who eschews the self would be a boor and social leper? Why must such a person act in the reprehensible manner you describe? In fact, it is actually the illusion of the self that drives us to do such things!

    Consider--why would you impregnate women? Because having sex feels you! Without the self there is no need, no desire, no conflict. (We highly recommend reading Krishnamurti for more on this - we have posted some of his work on the blog.)

    Without the "I" one is free to simply "be" without the stresses of (in your words) wanting to become CEO or a professional athlete. Why are such pursuits attractive? Because of the desires of the self! Such positions provide access to food, sex, comfort--all "desirable" things that are simply manifestations of the ego.

    The absurd man, by contrast, knows all is futile, and so is free to live purely for the sake of it, rather than to satisfy ephemeral desires rooted in biology.

    Circumstances are irrelevant. As Pico Iyer once put it: "Looking to our circumstances for strength, solace or support is like dancing at the edge of a very deep grave."


  7. Huh? The absurd man can't have desires? How ridiculous! As Camus said, the absurd man can most certainly have desires. He just needs to always maintain an ironic distance between those desires and the knowledge of the absurd. It sounds like what you're describing, by comparison, is some kind of absurd buddhist man. Which is a perfectly acceptable choice as one of many different absurd ways to live. But to say that to be an absurd man you have to live in this way is obviously wrong. Hey maybe you should change the name of your blog to Who is the Absurd Buddhist Man?

  8. David,

    Disbelieving in the self is different than "pretending like human individuals aren't patterns with predictable behaviors"

    In fact, I would say that disbelieving in existence of the self would EXACTLY BE seeing a person simply as a somewhat predictable pattern of matter. Meanwhile, believing in the self is more like believing that a human is an agent that has primary existence and is self-affirming and hence somehow MORE than just a collection of atoms created solely by the laws of physics acting on the prior states of the universe.

    "Man is the act, not the actor."


    PS: Yet there is no actor.

  9. Rick,

    I agree with the last anon that you often talk about being the absurd Buddhist man. Though similar, there are at least two key differences.

    Nothing about absurdity says that circumstances do not (or somehow should not) affect happiness - only that neither happiness nor circumstances matter.

    Secondly, as anon said, nothing about absurdity says that the way to be happy is to completely let go of desire and craving - only that you don't view your desires as "meaningful", and hence you pursue them while aware of the irony.

    Do you agree?


  10. Arthur-

    Well said, and yes, we mostly agree with this. Perhaps the issue is one of semantics--we are really not talking of "happiness" per se, but rather contentment. In other words, the absurd man can be content regardless of circumstance, but this does not preclude his enjoying a good meal, or sex, or any other experience.

    Further, the absurd man can be content yet also melancholy (as Inigo has written about); it is equanimity he is after, as opposed to happiness.

    Thanks for the interesting comments.


  11. I am "newly converted" to absurdism and after a harrowing existential crisis, I found your blog. I've enjoyed it a lot, and I'm very interested in your take on living the absurd life.

    I'm still a bit confused though. Would you say your "Buddhist" approach, focusing as you said on contentment rather than (for lack of a better term) hedonism, is widely held? I understand interpretations of the philosophy are going to vary, but there must be some prescriptive literature on absurdism.

    From what I've read, Camus himself lived a fairly "proactive" life, and defended/opposed various political positions and institutions. How do I reconcile his behavior with his (or your) stance on the absurd? Obviously he held no illusions that morality was objective, or that his actions conformed to some greater purpose. Was he simply indulging his empathy, or his social instincts/inclinations?

    Sorry if my questions are remedial. I'm very new to this.

    - Joe

  12. Anon-

    We can't profess expertise on the habits of Camus (or other absurdists), but the approach to life laid out in the Myth of Sisyphus is basically this: Each of us is pushing a rock up the hill. The difference between the absurd man and others is that the absurd man knows he will never get it to the top, and finds happiness/contentment in that knowledge. (Trying to get to the top, obviously, is an allegory for the pointless striving for possessions, achievements, etc.)

    The way we interpret this is to live for the sake of living, rather than as some series of meaningful pursuits. We have always found the absurd incredibly liberating, perhaps best expressed by treating life as if it were merely a role in a play (something we have explored in this blog).

    So...this does not mean the absurd man must do anything (or, for that matter, nothing). The freedom offered is from the tyranny we impose on ourselves--the endless feeling of need, itself driven by desire. To live the absurd life, in our opinion, is to live with equanimity, reveling in the fascination of human life while at the same time recognizing its inherent pointlessness.

    There are many books we would highly recommend (some listed on the side of the page)--perhaps the best to start with (besides Camus) is Denial of Death by Ernest Becker.


  13. I think I understand what you're saying, but I am afraid of "doing something wrong". I'm afraid that if I engage in politics or academia like some absurdists have, I will trick myself (out of hope or desperaton) into believing it's somehow objectively meaningful.

    You mentioned, in an earlier post, a friend of yours who lives on the beach, and questioned whether the absurd life might be "easier" in that situation. I just do not want to give myself any opportunities, especially since I'm so new to this, to "elude the absurd".

    Thank you for the recommendation(s).

  14. You guys are such fun to read...

  15. Should I quit my job? It's absurd. There's a sleeping spot under the overpass (or over the underpass) with my name on it. It sould suit my hunger for contentment until my inevitable disintigration, and then it would no longer be my name that is in my spot. -GC

  16. Hello, I just stumbled across this blog. It's quite nice.

    While Hagerty perhaps has a conventional conception of God, I think it's important to point out that the word God can be equated to the words Universe, or Life, or Being. Obviously, the word has been traditionally conceived of being representative of a existent deity somehow separate from and responsible for the Universe, who makes moral judgments and rewards and punishes humans. This is, of course, silly.

    I personally think that readings of Abrahamic religious scriptures are given an entirely different, powerful life when this God=Being equation is kept in mind. Holy texts become something to experience, not to investigate scientifically. You are Being, and so you are not separate from God. This is, I believe, what Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps many of the Jewish mystics responsible for parts of the Old Testament were aware of. They did the best they could to explain what they experienced of themselves, and thousands of years later, we see the results of misinterpretation and coercive ideology: the work of Lucifer, some would say, who, in my opinion, is a metaphor for the analytical mind. Lucifer is the 'light-bearer', who contrives to have the power of God. The analytical mind has the tendency to presume itself to be all that there is; we have the tendency to believe the objects we perceive to be all that we are; the ego has the tendency to dominate our awareness.

    Incidentally, this conception of God is entirely compatible with both the 'godless' traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, and the like, along with absurdism and existentialism.


  17. CD-

    Welcome! Interesting interpretation of scripture. Have you read "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris?

    We would certainly agree your portrait of "God" is compatible with Buddhism, etc - as you may be aware, many studies have shown religious people to have similarly configured brains that cause them to see "evidence" of divine intervention where others see purely physical phenomena.

    Finally, we think Lucifer is a terrific metaphor for the analytical mind - we are indeed our own worst enemies...