Friday, April 30, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell

One of my pastimes is walking through graveyards with my dog Charlie Darwin.

I particularly like the cemetery nearest my home in Sycamore, Illinois--Elmwood Cemetery--because it's old enough to have some graves going back to the 1840s, which is very old by the standards of the American Midwest. Elmwood was formally incorporated in 1865, and it has many graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Graves are a sign of our humanity. Evolutionary scientists often see prehistoric burial sites as evidence for the first appearance of the human species. The symbolic activity of burying the dead and perhaps imagining a life after death suggests distinctively human capacities and propensities for pondering the meaning of life and death.

I often wonder about the designs of the grave monuments that I see. Almost invariably, every monument will have the name of the individual along with the years of birth and death. The only exception is that some of the older monuments for dead infants will say simply "Baby" or "Infant." Many monuments identify family relationships--son, daughter, husband, wife, and so on. Often there is one monument for a married couple, with the date of their marriage. Some monuments identify some lifetime achievement or career--the most common being military service, often specifying military rank and the war. Dying in war seems to be especially honorable. Sometimes dead individuals are identified as lawyers, doctors, or ministers. Many are identified as beloved or loving people who will be remembered.

One can see here what people think is most important for their lives--their individual identities as bounded by birth and death, their marriage, their loving attachments to family and friends, their careers, and their honorable service to their communities.

It's surprising to me that so few monuments make any clear reference to Heaven, although many have crosses, which might suggest some Christian notion of Heaven. And I have never seen any reference to Hell, which might just reflect the sunny optimism of Americans.

Those monuments that invoke some conception of an afterlife are often remarkably vague or comically specific. One monument I've seen declares: "Death is not the end. What seems so is only transition." Transition to what? It doesn't say. Another monument I've seen has a marble golf ball on it, with the words "golfing for eternity."

Some of the monuments for married couples say "together forever," suggesting that the couple will be reunited as husband and wife in Heaven.

Surveys of American public opinion suggest that while many Americans believe in Heaven, fewer believe in Hell, and of those who believe in Heaven, almost all believe they're going there. What they think they're going to do in Heaven is often unclear--"golfing for eternity"? Of course, in some of the more secularized parts of the world, most people have no conception at all of an afterlife.

Do we still believe in Heaven and Hell--an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments? If so, does this belief provide a necessary support for our earthly morality? Or are we seeing the decline of the traditional notions of the afterlife? And if this is so, does this weaken our motivation for morality, given that it has no confirmation in cosmic moral law enforced by eternal judgment after death?

Although Darwin was never a complete atheist, because he thought the mystery of the origin of the universe left an opening for God as First Cause, he utterly rejected the orthodox conceptions of Heaven and Hell, saying that the idea of eternal punishment for unbelief was a "damnable doctrine" that denied God's goodness. He believed that "the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality." But he also thought that "a man who has no asssured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward" could could still derive moral guidance from social praise and blame and from his own rational judgment or conscience. (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Norton, 1958, 86-95; Descent of Man, Penguin, 682).

Against Darwin, and against my conception of "Darwinian natural right," some religious believers have insisted that morality is impossible if it is not sustained by a religious belief in a cosmic moral law enforced by eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell. Even Plato suggests a similar argument in Book 10 of the Laws.

To think through this debate, this will be the first of a series of posts on the evolution of Heaven and Hell.

The main theme running through my posts will be the contrast between the transcendental Platonic/Christian tradition of human immortality and the empirical Aristotelian/Darwinian tradition of human mortality. According to the Platonic/Christian tradition, the necessary condition for sustaining the moral and intellectual virtues is some belief in the immortality of the human soul in an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments enforcing a cosmic moral law. I agree that such a belief can reinforce our natural understanding of the human virtues and vices. But I also think that our natural understanding of the virtues and vices can stand on its own without the support of any belief in immortality and eternal judgment. We should be confident, therefore, that we can sustain our natural standards of moral and intellectual excellence even while we recognize that ideas of immortality in the afterlife are unintelligible because they contradict our natural experience of life and death.


Troy Camplin said...

Adam came downstairs, dressed in his suit, briefcase in hand. Bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, and grits made a blend of aromas that pulled him into the kitchen. His wife, Lily, placed the last glass on the table as Adam walked in. Both worked full time, and today was Lily’s turn to make breakfast,. She smiled at Adam as he came in and sat at his place at the table. The conversation they’d had the previous night was still on his mind.

“I don’t know why you’re smiling. I haven’t changed my mind,” Adam said.

Lily frowned.

“Do you want me to quit my job? Do you just want a housewife?” Lily asked.

“Why does having kids mean you’ll have to quit your job and become a housewife? Lots of women have kids and careers,” Adam said.

“Not my sister,” Lily said. She poured them both milk.

“That’s your sister’s choice,” Adam said.

Lily put the milk in the refrigerator and grabbed the plate of bacon and the bowl of grits and placed them on the table. Without a word, she grabbed the bowl of scrambled eggs and the plate of buttered toast and placed them in front of Adam.

The two ate in silence. Adam thought of his assistant at work, a tall blonde who was always eating fruit. She had been talking recently of how much she wanted to get married and have children. Eva was a good woman.

Adam shook his head and took a bite of bacon. He shouldn’t think things like that. Thoughts like that could get a man in trouble.

After they finished eating, Adam helped Lily clear the table and fill the dishwasher. Each kissed the other goodbye, finished getting together what they needed for work, got into their separate cars, and headed in opposite directions to their jobs. Adam continued thinking of the situation with Lily. Why didn’t she want children? What was the real reason? He didn’t buy for a minute her excuse. Now Eva . . . No. No. He mustn’t think that.

Adam shook his head to dispel this last thought, and failed to notice the red light. As he ran it, a semi truck hit his driver’s side, killing Adam instantly.

* * * * *

The above is a bad story because it leaves the reader unfulfilled. We are supposed to learn more about this developing conflict, not be left with such a stupid ending. But for the vast majority of us, our lives end exactly this way: stupidly. If it is not death by an accident, it is by cancer, heart attack, or any of a number of ways that deprive our deaths of meaning. Few of us get glorious ends, culminating our lives in any sort of meaningful ways. Faced with the practical certainty of meeting such a stupid end, we have all, every culture, set out like Don Quixote, determined to come up with a better end to the story, whether that end be heaven, a longer life granted by God/the gods to give you more time to create a better end for yourself, an afterlife state of bliss, elimination of suffering (in nirvana, for example), or earthly utopias.

Thus is born various teleologies, eschatologies and soul concepts. The way we get to them is through and because of language. We have, through and because of language, narrated our own lives beyond the present, through various futures, to our own certain deaths, and discovered that we inevitably end up with terrible, meaningless, stupid endings. So we narrate the story beyond our lives, to afterlives, including material afterlives (Communist utopias, for example). Or we fashion our own glorious endings (in suicide bombings, etc.). Every time we work for the future, for our children, for a future society we will never see, it is from the same eschatalogical drive that creates and created the world’s religions. Because we have recursive narrative (grammatical) language, we have created the need for religion, to make the future meaningful. So we can see, then, that for religion, in the beginning (arche) was the word (logos). Without it, one cannot get religion at all. Thus, Nietzsche’s statement that “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar . . . “ (Twilight of the Idols, 5) is quite profound in its insight.

Troy Camplin said...

All of the human cultural universals that constitute the various elements of our religions have this same origin in (recursive, grammatical) language leading to an extended sense of time: divination, funeral rites, luck superstitions, magic, propitiation of supernatural beings, religious ritual, soul concepts, and eschatologies. Our extended sense of time allows us to project into an increasingly uncertain future. It makes good evolutionary sense to have a fear of what is unknown – since what is unknown could be a predator. Our extended sense of time creates an increasingly unknown and unknowable future, meaning our fear of the known “out there” in a spatial sense gets applied to time, as it becomes increasingly unknown. At the same time we, as all the great apes (and perhaps all animals), have a sense of causality: in the past A resulted in B several times; therefore, A causes B. And it is important in an evolutionary sense for a species, such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans, which develop much of their understanding of the world through learning, to have evolved a sense of causality – if you do not figure out that the leopard or something like that leopard is the cause of the death of a fellow troop member, then you will probably end up becoming leopard (lion, etc.) food yourself. But our extended notion of time makes us realize predictability breaks down over time. Faced with the contradiction of belief in causality and long-term unpredictability, we developed divination. Divination is the attempt to make the unknowns of the future “known” through applying causality to the far future, beyond when reasonable predictions can be made. Luck superstitions would be the attempt to explain in a causal way why good things happen to some people, but not to others – it is a variation on the sense of justice (also felt by chimpanzees), applied to that part of the world not within our control. It is in a sense related to the idea of magic, which is how we attempt to make sense of the unknown and unfamiliar in the absence of causal explanations. All of these are possible only with language. They require being put into words and being discussed. The discussions about “that strange thing that just happened” lead to causal explanations because we need causal explanations, even if the cause is magic (which makes more sense to most people than there being no cause, or no cause that can be discovered – and what is technology to one is magic to another), of which miracles for this discussion are a part. Miracles in this sense are magic performed by supernatural beings, by those supernatural beings, or through people chosen by those supernatural beings.

Troy Camplin said...

This mixing of instincts makes sense if our brains generalized as they evolved, making specialized regions (for recognizing kin, for status differentiation, for narrative, and for communication) overlap or otherwise become connected in places – allowing for the retention of instincts while others developed from the overlaps and connections. The hierarchically nested brain evolved hierarchically nested instincts, so that “each integrative level subsumes the functions and structures of the one or ones beneath it, and each adds to the potentialities of its predecessors certain new degrees of freedom” (Fraser, TOC 10). Instincts follow the same pattern as I (and Fraser, Argyros, F. Turner, et al) have suggested the rest of the universe follows: an agonal relationship among parts that gives rise to new integrative levels that are scalarly self-similar. The new instincts are similar to the ones they develop out of, but at the same time, those new instincts give us new emergent properties, giving us more freedom. In this theory of the development of more instincts in humans, we see a parallel with chaos theory, which shows how a universal gives rise to a plurality with a family resemblance, with these cultural universals giving rise to endless variations of those universals. The fact that the extended sense of time created by the recursive narrative structure of language leads to divination, eschatology, funeral rites, luck superstitions, magic, the propitiation of supernatural beings, religious rituals (how we give meaning to religion), and soul concepts explains why these became combined into the various religions of the world, past and present. So when Turner says humans and animals both ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (NC, 9), we can see he is in effect saying that only humans have religious ritual.

Troy Camplin said...

Part of being human is believing in the supernatural. Even when we try to “get rid” of religion, all we do is replace one religion with another. Take Marxism. Its eschatology is the inevitable Communist anarchic utopia at the end of history. Its divination (divined by the prophet Marx) is the Marxist theory of history – the immanent (historically determined) triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeois. In this sense, luck will ultimately be with the proletariat, as it was with the bourgeois against the aristocracy. Anyone familiar with Lysenko’s biological theories knows the Soviet Communists at least (and, I would argue, anyone who believes reality is completely socially constructed to the extent that we can do things like grow wheat in the tundra) believed in magic. The proletariat had a deep, fundamental identity clearly separable from the bourgeois’ that is readily identifiable as different kinds of collective “souls.” Lenin and Stalin (at least while Stalin was alive) and other Communist heroes were treated as if they were supernatural (one could go so far as to say that in a sense all our heroes are “supernatural” in that they go beyond what the average human does in their thoughts and actions – thus our need for heroes). The universal belief in supernatural beings comes from the combination of eschatology from our extended sense of time, and the application of status differentiation into this realm (meaning beings have to exist in this realm for status to apply there), as well as relating this realm to kin groups (until Judaism, (the) God(s) in the Middle East were local, meaning they were coupled to property rights in a loose sense; until Christianity, God(s) were associated with kin groups, and were related – often literally – to those who worshiped them, all of which suggests we have been developing an extended sense of who belongs to our tribe for millennia). Religious ritual comes out of the combination of chimpanzee meat-eating rituals, where head male chimpanzees distribute meat the troop caught in such a way as to provide unity in the troop through fair distribution of the meat, as well as emphasizing the troop hierarchy, with the collection of behaviors that gave rise to religion in general – which suggests why religious rituals so often involve ritualized eating and drinking, including sacrificing food and drink.

Troy Camplin said...

These universals arise because they are how we can explain the unexplainable to each other, and they served us so well, they became instincts. This is why so many people have problems with scientific, naturalistic explanations. Science shows us everything has a naturalistic explanation – magic is not needed. But we need magic as an explanation. It is part of our need to have faith in something beyond ourselves, beyond our understanding. This is the source of faith healing, and it is also why faith healing in a sense works. Having a hopeful outlook helps us heal more quickly. If you have two people in the same health who receive the same surgical procedure, but one believes it will work while the other does not, the one who believes in the procedure will recover faster and more completely than the one who does not. At the same time, you can give placebos to people who think they are receiving real medicine, and some will react to the placebo as if it were real medicine. This explains both why there is some success rate among witch doctors and other faith healers, and why modern medicine is not always the best it could be. While we should not give up on the real advancements made in medicine, medicine could be served by combining it with some form of faith healing – modern medicine would supply biological benefits, while faith healing would supply psychological benefits. This would give us a more fully human medicine, by reuniting physical health with the holy. Modern medicine all too often feels dehumanizing to the patients. To the extent it deals with body parts without acknowledging those parts belong to a human being whose needs extend to a very powerful, creative, body-influencing psychological element, including deep instincts that sometimes – as in the case of magic, faith healing, luck superstitions, and divination – do not stand up in the face of contemporary scientific knowledge, it is dehumanizing. And until we either gain full faith in science (a danger too, in that it can suppress scientific innovation, as people have faith in the current or traditional scientific findings, as people did and still do with Newton’s physics – Laplace’s calculator is scientific divination), or evolve beyond the need for faith (as Nietzsche wishes we could do) so we can accept facts as facts (and not as truth) in naturalistic explanations, there will continue to be rebellion against purely naturalistic explanations for and approaches to everything. People prefer Laplace’s calculator over chaos and complex systems theory, as the former says the world is eminently knowable and the future calculable, if we could only have enough information, while the latter says the world is inherently incalculable, even if we had all the information in the world. Wolfram, in his recent work A New Kind of Science, attempts to bring a form of Laplace’s calculator back into complex systems theory, making it deterministic – showing how strong the drive is for divination.