Does God Exist? - Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, part 4/6

By Thomas Metzinger

photo by David Martin Castan

In order to see as clearly as possible what the connection between spirituality and intellectual honesty might consist in, we will now have to be more specific. Let us look at three examples of what it could mean, at the beginning of the 21st century, to be unwilling to lie to oneself. Let us begin by asking about the existence of God. Conceptually, there is not a single convincing argument for God’s existence in 2500 years of the history of Western philosophy. All known proofs of God’s existence fail. And retreating to agnosticism— as many of us like to do — and saying “I simply won’t say anything about this, I withhold judgment!” is not exactly as easy an option as it may first seem. This position is problematic because the entire burden of proof is on the side of the theists, of those who make a positive claim without being able to back it up with empirical evidence or rational arguments. If, for example, our best theories and all available evidence suggest that the Easter Bunny does not exist, then it is also not intellectually honest to say “I am an Easter Bunny agnostic, I myself will consider this to be an open question!” A classical fallacy in this context is the argumentam ad ignorantiam, the argument from ignorance, which has been known for centuries. The logical mistake consists in the assumption that something that has not been proven false is automatically true. Returning to our example, the classical error in reasoning would be the following: „As long as the existence of the Easter Bunny has not been disproved beyond the shadow of a doubt, it can be assumed as a commonly accepted fact!” We are all very prone to this fallacy for psychological reasons, because it allows us to submit to cultural tradition and is driven by the secret motive of wanting nevertheless to derive a strong conclusion from our ignorance. However, almost nothing truly interesting follows from the fact that one does not know something.

From the perspective of rational argumentation, agnosticism could well turn out not to be a genuine option at all, because the burden of proof is so unequally distributed and because there are simply no convincing, positive arguments for the existence of God. However, there are many different forms of agnosticism. Two of these might be of interest for those taking the spiritual stance discussed above. The first is the crystal-clear theoretical insight that all questions concerning the existence or non-existence God are meaningless as long as there is no coherent definition of the concept of “God”— incidentally, a point that also concerns all those who like to regard themselves as atheists and prefer to give a univocally negative answer to the question. Does a meaningful, internally coherent and non-contradictory concept of God even exist? A spiritual type-I agnostic could say: “I don’t even know what you mean by the concept of ‘God’ and so cannot make any claims about his existence or non-existence. It would be intellectually dishonest to even participate in this kind of discussion.” A type-II agnostic could simply point out that questions concerning the existence or non-existence of God are uninteresting and, in this sense, insignificant, because they do not play a role for spiritual practice. After all, this practice is not about having the right theory, but about ending our permanent search for emotional security and certainty by understanding the inner, underlying structure of this search on a deeper level.

Conceptually, there seems to be no convincing argument for the existence of God. It also seems to be quite easy to slip into errors of reasoning or to get lost in irrelevant discussions. But what about empirical evidence? Empirically, and this is a trivial point, there are no proofs for the existence of God. Obviously, mystical experiences or altered states of consciousness as such cannot provide empirical evidence in any strict sense of the word. What is new about the current situation, however, is that there is a growing number of increasingly convincing theories on the evolution of religious belief. Evolutionary psychology is providing the first models of the development of metaphysical belief systems and science is beginning to investigate how the phenomenon of religiosity gradually developed in the history of humankind in the first place. These research programs are part of a movement that can be described as aiming to “naturalize” religion, and they are an important aspect of the naturalist turn in the image of humankind that I talked about at the very beginning.

According to the view that is slowly beginning to emerge from recent research, the evolution of belief had a lot to do with the evolution of useful forms of self-deception. The evolution of consciousness not only led to the development of better and better forms of perception, thinking and intelligence. It also led to the appearance of false, but nonetheless useful beliefs, positive illusions and entire delusional systems, which may have survived because they increased the reproductive success of those who endorsed them, thus enabling them to pass their genes on to their descendants more successfully. All parents directly perceive their children as being above-average in terms of their looks and intelligence. They are proud of their children and claim that parenthood has increased their emotional quality of life, overall satisfaction and personal sense of meaningfulness. By contrast, psychological research shows that parents have a lower emotional quality of life than people who do not have children, that parents experience positive feelings more rarely and negative feelings and periods of depression more frequently, and that their satisfaction with their marriage and their partner is lower. Generally, the majority of people claim to have more positive and fewer negative experiences than the average. Self-deception allows us to forget past defeats, it increases motivation and self-confidence. The conventional view according to which natural selection favored increasingly accurate images of ourselves and of reality is outdated. Recent research shows that in many cases, evolution produced systematic misrepresentations of reality. There is an evolution of self-deception. At the same time, positive illusions, mechanisms of repression and delusional models of reality do not only have a purely defensive function that strengthens the inner cohesion of the human self-model and liberates it from certain negative information.  On the sociopsychological level, they also seem to be an effective strategy for controlling exactly those kinds of information that are available to other people, so as to deceive them more effectively— for instance by convincing others that one is more ethical, stronger, more intelligent or more attractive than one really is. Self-deception not only serves the purpose of self-protection, but also of aggression, for instance when attempting to improve one’s social status.  Some forms of self-deception are only truly effective in groups. By stabilizing internal hierarchies and existing structures of exploitation, they increase the internal cohesion of large groups (for instance when confronting other clans, peoples, or religious communities). All these functions are also fulfilled by religion. And this point is of the utmost importance for the question of whether secularized forms of spirituality are possible: The subjective experience of certainty is not the same as the actual possession of certainty. Contemporary research provides abundant evidence showing that, at any time, we may fall victim to unnoticed deception about the contents of our own consciousness. Intuitions have a long biological history. Those who take the philosophical project of self-knowledge seriously must consider the possibility that intuitive certainties may be systematically misleading and that even the “direct observation of one’s own consciousness” can always produce introspective illusions.

The new major problem for our species is our explicit and consciously experienced insight into our own mortality. The so-called terror management theory says that the process of becoming conscious of one’s own mortality can produce a direct conflict with our instinct of self-preservation and hence has the potential for generating a paralyzing, existential kind of fear. We try to overcome this fear by seeking security and stability in an ideology that we use as a kind of “anxiety buffer”. A stable ideological framework enables us to stabilize our sense of self-esteem on the emotional level as well, for instance through religious beliefs, the shared commitment to certain values, rituals, and a lifestyle that is based on more or less strict rules and is shared with other believers. Empirical research shows: The less able we are to repress information about our own mortality, the more strongly we identify with our chosen ideological system.

extract 4 from Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty (see part 1 of the 6 part series)

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