In philosophical terms, asking about the purpose of life may indeed be analogous to asking why unicorns are hollow. But in psychological terms, that’s an anaemic comparison. People aren’t normally very preoccupied with uncovering the secret attributes of unicorns; we accept that unicorns don’t exist and, as a consequence, whether they’re hollow or solid doesn’t exactly weigh on our thoughts. The same doesn’t necessarily hold true for God, however. Many people don’t believe in God, yet they still ask themselves about the purpose of life and can’t easily shake their curiosity about this seemingly grand and obscure mystery. Even though we know our biological facts and have managed to emotionally disencumber ourselves from the strappings of the Cross, or flung off our yarmulkes, turned our hijabs into throws, and all the rest, the question of why we’re here still occasionally rises up in our thoughts like a case of hives—and it’s an itchy rash that science just can’t seem to scratch. So the real mystery lies not in why we are here on this earth, each as distinct individuals; instead, the real mystery is why this purpose-of-life question is so seductive and recalcitrant in the face of logical science.

– Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

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I.

The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.

– Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903)

 

II.

God doesn’t answer us directly, of course. There’s no nod to the left, no telling elbow poke in our side or “psst” in our ear. Rather, we envision God, and other entities like Him, as encrypting strategic information in an almost infinite array of natural events: the prognostic stopping of a clock at a certain hour and time; the sudden shrieking of a hawk; an embarrassing blemish on our nose appearing on the eve of an important interview; a choice parking spot opening up at a crowded mall just as we pull around; an interesting stranger sitting next to us on a plane. The possibilities are endless. When the emotional climate is just right, there’s hardly a shape or form that “evidence” cannot assume. Our minds make meaning by disambiguating the meaningless.

– Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life (2011)

In the autobiographies of autistic individuals, God, the cornerstone of most people’s religious experience, is presented more as a sort of principle than as a psychological entity. For autistics, God seems to be a faceless force in the universe that is directly responsible for the organization of cosmic structure—arranging matter in an orderly fashion, or “treating” entropy—or He’s been reduced to cold, rational scientific logic altogether. […] What is noticeably missing is a sense of interpersonal relations between the autistic individual and God. It’s almost as if the algorithmic strategies used to deal with other people spill over into the authors’ religious beliefs as well. […]

On the other side of the clinical coin from autism is the disorder of paranoid schizophrenia, in which the term “paranoid” captures the essence of a theory of mind gone completely wild. These individuals see personal signs and messages in nearly everything. The experience of apophenia (seeing patterns of connections in random or meaningless events) that is more or less endemic to the psychology of these patients is especially telling. For example, University of Edinburgh psychiatrist Jonathan Burns writes,

Patients with schizophrenia seek meaning in the bizarre phenomena of their psychoses. Theistic and philosophical phenomena populate their hallucinations, while the frantic search for, and misattribution of, intentionality must lie at the heart of symptoms such as thought insertion, ideas of reference and paranoid delusions.

– Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life (2011)

There is a curious twist to the charge that “what people say is not necessarily what they do.” It implies that what people do is more important, more “real,” than what they say, or that the latter is important only for what it can reveal about the former. […] This one-sided emphasis is curious in light of our everyday ways of dealing with the relationship between saying and doing. […]

The meaning placed on most acts by the participants in any everyday encounter depends upon what they say to one another in advance, concurrently, or after they have acted. Or what they are able to presuppose about what the other would say, given a particular context. […] To those who want to concentrate upon whether what people say predicts what they will do, the only proper answer is that to separate the two in that way is to do bad philosophy, bad anthropology, bad psychology, and impossible law.

– Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (1990)

Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It’s all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get?

– Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2000)

There are men who rarely think well of women,—who hardly think well of any woman. They put their mothers and sisters into the background,—as though they belonged to some sex or race apart,—and then declare to themselves and to their friends that all women are false,—that no woman can be trusted unless her ugliness protect her; and that every woman may be attacked as fairly as may game in a cover, or deer on a mountain, What man does not know men who have so thought?

– Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? (1864)

By now, almost all of the shtetl’s three hundred–odd citizens had gathered to debate that about which they knew nothing. The less a citizen knew, the more adamantly he or she argued. There was nothing new in this. A month before there had been the question of whether it might send a better message to the children to plug, finally, the bagel’s hole. Two months before there had been the cruel and comic debate over the question of typesetting, and before that the question of Polish identity, which moved many to tears, and many to laughter, and all to more questions. And still to come would be other questions to debate, and others after that. Questions from the beginning of time—whenever that was—to whenever would be the end.

– Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated (2002)

I.

If we wish a change to be as deep and radical as possible, we must apply the remedy in minute doses, but unremittingly for long periods. What great action can be performed all  at once?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn of Day (1881)

 

II.

When a man turns his back upon someone and walks away, it is easy to see that he walks away, but when a man hits upon a method of turning his face towards the one he is walking away from, hits upon a method of walking backwards while with appearance and glance and salutations he greets the person, giving assurances again and again that he is coming immediately, or incessantly saying “Here I am” although he gets farther and farther away by walking backwards, then it is not easy to become aware.

– Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847)

And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations.

The King James Bible, 1 Samuel 8:10-20