Religion and Endgame

So three things occasion this post: I watched Avengers: Endgame last night, Will Shetterly posted an observation about fandom and its religious nature, and I stumbled upon an article in my feed from a left-ish site about how new studies suggest human beings are not rational (ya think so?).

If there’s one thing I preach, it’s the power of evolutionary logic, especially as applied to human psychology. The perspective that humans are not strictly rational because they are strongly biased toward the preservation of their genes has produced a wealth of insight into our psychology, where all other competing explanations have produced none. (What? None? Yes, none. Just like evolutionary theory has produced billions of insights into the diversity of life, supported by experiment and observation, and all explanations that try to compete have produced none. Yes, none. Or to put it another way, the theory of evolution has passed billions of falsifiable tests. The competition? None. Not one truly falsifiable test that would promote it, even provisionally, over the theory of evolution. Some people are shocked by this and struggle to deny it. But it’s true.)

Those who see in evolution a direct challenge to their religion conflate the modes of religio-aesthetic and objective discourse. I think this is a grave mistake. I put it to a dear lifelong friend: “If I could convince you — and given time I think I could — that evolutionary theory is the best explanation, not ‘true’ in an ultimate sense but the very best explanation, for all the observed phenomena in its domain, would you lose your religious faith?”

He admitted he probably would, or at least that’s how I remember it. Maybe he only conceded that his faith would be shaken.

We humans seek promotion of our genes, but somehow we manage to form societies with people of very different ancestry. So how do we reconcile this fact? It seems a miracle. And that’s what it is. A miracle that we owe to religion, whose space is carved out by evolution. As Slavoj Zizek noted recently (and as I posted here years ago), the great central paradox of Christianity is the self-sacrificing God who himself may become an atheist and holds that potential in an eternal moment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We are in an age of intense crisis of faith. People have lost faith in God, masculinity, and femininity. But these things were not created by human beings and cannot be killed by them. They can only be repressed and denied and projected in negative ways. They are, at heart, products of evolution through deep time, determined as to general form rather than the contents of experience shaped by them. They are potentiated by adaptations that helped our species survive, but paradoxically, we will sacrifice ourselves to affirm them. It is very clear to anyone who studies evolution deeply that there is no meaning — no verifiable teleology — in evolution. It is not a goal-driven process. Yet the process has fixed meaning and hunger for meaning in us all the same. By this fact, that a value-neutral process produces our capacity for meaning, the theory of evolution has actually made many people religious. “Supernatural” does not mean superstitious; it means outside of nature, a realm of ideals, and we find evidence for its preeminence in our hearts.

Blockbuster superhero movies are insanely popular. They reach and inspire people across the major religions. They are, when they connect with their audience, a form of mind technology that allows a lonely tribal animal to extend the reach of its fellowship toward all sentient life. Maybe they are religions in every important sense: they affirm the existence of the archetypes and show their positive representations to emulate, and their negative representations to hold in check. The radiant king and the radiant queen are cold, dead icons apart from the human dramas that fuel their light. To the extent they inspire and move us, they renew our faith in Meaning. People let each other down all the time as representations of the archetypes. Superhero movies that make us cry or cheer remind us that being let down is not always an inevitability.

I’m still trying to tease out whether there is any real difference between an aesthetic and religious mode. Every disappointment my friends have with religion — believers and atheists alike — stems from their ability to see how religion is corrupted by confusion and cynical politics, a conflation of modes, and their inability to see the awe and joy toward which it properly strives.

Anyway, Avengers: Endgame is a good show. If you like superhero movies, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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A Poisonous Idea

“Every categorical statement is political” — I keep coming back to this proposition by my critical theory professor. It’s such a stupid, poisonous idea. It discounts science, art, and the dialectical process. And I see it has caught on like a plague. In this formulation, every truth becomes an argument against another truth. But that is a twisted way to engage with the world. We need to accept some cognitive dissonance. The partially right is partially wrong and vice versa.

There is a disinterested scientific mode of discourse. There is an artistic mode for exploring irrational human truth. You keep the modes separate much like you follow the rules of a game. Sure you can cheat and make the game political, but cheating is cheating. It is possible not to cheat! There is a dispassionate, dialectical approach to provocation that makes you smarter. This approach makes you stupid.

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The Polluted Well of Social Media Discourse

These days, I mostly indulge myself with meta-political posts rather than get in the weeds on a specific issue, and when I do get specifically political on Facebook, I see much more clearly now how stupid I’m being. I cannot rationalize taking that hit of sweet, sweet cortisol.

When our current president was elected, I realized that I could not safely feed the beast of angry discourse without polluting the general well. I’m mulling a new idea about social media, that it’s not just the sound-bite meme culture it promotes that has degraded our discourse. Rather, even the posts we labor over have this unintended effect so long as commercial media exists, because commercial media must resort to increasingly debased provocation to get attention.

We should learn something here from Trump. When he complains about “fake news,” he’s not so much creating distrust as tapping into it. This is not the media landscape of the 1930s. We have a real problem with commercial news becoming increasingly unreliable. I invite you to be relentlessly self-critical and alert to strawmen arguments that you find convenient for your outrage. We are being played, as ever, not so much by a conspiracy but as a function of the market and the vulnerabilities in our mental wiring.

I think it’s healthiest both individually and collectively to post on blogs or in private groups, even though it limits your reach. I love engaging with my friends who do thoughtful, provocative wall posts, but I know it’s parasitism. I’m helping them indulge an impulse that may not be psychologically healthy. They bear the brunt of exposure and managing theory of mind about a broad audience of friends. This is different from publishing for mass consumption. I’m convinced that the medium makes it different. I’m still trying to suss out how. As a parasite, I’m not as exposed to my whole friend group and don’t feel the need to manage expectations. This is partially (largely?) a function of how Facebook manages exposure. I engaged a few friends recently on their posts in a way that would have drawn baleful attention on my own wall.

To my friends I engage who are dealing with depression, I suspect that the good feeling I’ve cultivated with you through Facebook discussion imposes an insidious burden on your mental health.

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Occam’s Razor and Gillette Razors

Several of my fellow left-leaning friends on Facebook have posted (rhetorically, it seems) the question of why the Gillette commercial has upset so many men, and their consensus appears to be that these men are thin-skinned (the razor puns write themselves) and want to defend bad behavior.

I don’t think so.

The ad does not seem calculated to open a constructive dialog, but rather to sell razors, as you would expect of an ad.

The video presents a strawman construction of the American conservative ideal of masculinity, and is a direct poke in the eye to conservatives. The protests from Gillette that it merely wants to open a constructive dialog on negative social expectations of manhood may or may not be sincere, but the evidence that they are so well intentioned does not fit a parsimonious critique.

The ad opens with the words “toxic masculinity,” a buzzword well associated with the identitarian left. Masculinity and femininity are human capacities each individual expresses in various proportion along a phenotype spectrum anchored by biological sex. “Toxic masculinity” is no more cogent a term than “toxic strength” or “toxic resolve.” A lot of people see it as a bid to pathologize masculinity. It certainly implies a naive association between men and masculinity, when many of their bad behaviors are really feminine in the abstract sense, and vice versa for women.

The ad asks, “Is this the best a man can be?” “The best” is an ideal, so the commercial implies that there is no widely accepted better ideal out there. But of course there is. Even the most literal-minded churchgoing patriarch in this country espouses a better ideal than this strawman.

The ad is in dialog with the shadow projection of a malignant “patriarchy.” I am not a conservative, but even I can see what a poke in the face it is to conservatives.

The social-media soundbite discourse indulges the strawman fallacy to a pathological extent. If you want to get smarter, don’t get sucked in by it.

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Raising a Human Being

I’m in no position to tell you how to raise your kids, only how my wife and I raised ours. Since our daughter was very small, my wife was determined that she would always feel seen for who she was. I agreed. I taught my daughter all my enthusiasms, but did not cling to any expectations of who she should be. I allowed her to be my teacher.

Our daughter has done very well. In high school she was an accomplished dancer and actress and top student, and she’s now halfway into her first semester at a college that appears to suit her.

There’s nothing more tedious than having someone boast to you about their kids, and that’s not my intention. Even if it were, my daughter’s success would reflect scant credit on me. My wife was far more attentive day-to-day in her care, and even she would agree that through sheer luck our job has been easy.

So I’m not so interested in the question of what I did that was right but what I did that wasn’t wrong, a question that I mulled over this past weekend as we made the five-hour trip to our daughter’s school for parents weekend. Coincidentally, I had started reading a book on my Kindle that touched on the issue of how parents alienate kids from themselves, Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway.

Aside from the occasional gender-political aside that struck me as odd and wrong, I found this book to live up to the hype and the honors it’s received, namely the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards, among others. It’s short, and critics cite this as a flaw, but I found it appropriate. The book explores a strong metaphor that deserves focused attention: namely, a person’s selfhood as a fantasy world that uniquely suits them.

It’s an obvious idea, lying in plain sight. I’ve said many times over the years that I write to create a world I can live in. I’ve been obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons since I was an adolescent, and I’ve been striving to understand and return to the beginner’s mind that I had when I first encountered the game and it set my world, at least briefly, into an ordered beauty I’d scarcely guessed at before.

Rather than a single fantasy world, McGuire posits a fantasy multiverse based on the same Cartesian-landscape graph as the Dungeons & Dragons Outer Planes, with Virtue and Wickedness standing in for Good and Evil, and Nonsense and Logic for Chaos and Law. (I did my own similar exercise in fantasy-multiverse topology here: What World Do You Live In?) Various children can be drawn into fantasy worlds that are sympatico with their personality, and each experience’s their fantasy world as a paradise, notwithstanding that it might be hellish for the natives: one’s fantasy world suits their temperament and aptitudes; it gives them a perfectly tailored sense of purpose and belonging. When children are forced back into the mundane world, they pine for what they’ve lost, but one fantasy-world expatriate masquerading as a mental-health worker has created a boarding school where the children can share their experience of exile and maybe even return to what they invariably consider their true home.

The children share more than just an experience of having lived in a magical world: they also grew up under the shadow of parental expectations. They were not seen for who they were, and so the real world is for them colored by those expectations and the self-alienation they represent. (The fantasy-world metaphor also implies fixation and self-absorption that I would guess the author will further explore in sequels.)

This is one of the truest fantasy books I’ve read in a long time. Exile and alienation from our own ideal world is the condition of every human being. As I said in my post on Jung and the Self, our entire universe is a projection of our unique expression of the human genome. We are all adjacent universes, joined tenuously by our ability to conceptualize shared ideals (in the sense of ultimate, unattainable horizons of abstraction) and form fleeting bridges across the gaps of our experience and essential selves. Our heaven can easily be another’s hell, and the heavy burden of a parent is to strive to see a child for who they are, to love even what we do not really, and ultimately can’t, understand, and not to infect them with what we might need them to be.

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Defusing a Bomb with Phenomenology

Here is one of my favorite scenes from John Carpenter’s Dark Star. As I said in my last post, solipsism is identifying the ego with God. If the tech had explained to the bomb the Jungian concept of the Self versus the Ego, maybe this would have gone differently.

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The Jungian Self and God

I’ve started a Facebook group for discussing psychology and social media, to explore my thesis that social media has precipitated a crisis of persona management and that it’s a very hazardous tool. The following post I made to the group really concerns my broader reflections on Jung’s claim that Christ is a symbol of the Self. I thought this was one of my better posts, but it got no play at all:

Persona, Ego, Self, and the Locus of God. The Persona is the archetype of the various masks we wear to represent ourselves to other people. A consistent self-presentation is so vital to functioning in groups that the Persona is a significant mode of the psyche, fixed by evolution, and is there organizing our experience whether we’re conscious of it or not. The Ego, on the other hand, is the center of awareness, and the Persona can shield the Ego, help represent the Ego, or eclipse and stunt the Ego, which is the condition of Persona inflation, or identification. All the archetypes threaten to subsume a weak Ego.

The Self is neither Persona nor Ego. The Self is Everything set in proper order. It is a mode of the entire psyche setting all the archetypes in dynamic balance. Its symbol, according to Jung, is the mandala. The Self, like the Tao, comprises your entire multiverse: conscious, unconscious, the material universe, heaven, and hell. Jung said that Christ was a symbol of the Self. For Christians, therefore, the Self is God.

There are several potential loci for God as I see it. There is the externalized supernatural God who is situated in a perfected idealized realm apart from humanity; there is God as the Ego, that is, the God of the solipsist; and then there is God as immanent from the Self.

Consider that there is nothing outside your experience, except theoretically, and that perforce your world is represented to you through your own psyche, which for all its collective aspects is a unique expression of the genome. Your multiverse is not quite like anyone else’s. And so must it be with God. “God is your own Self” is a far different proposition from “God is the Ego.” The Ego is not the locus of Meaning organizing the entire psyche; it is just the surface tip of the vast subterranean mountain of your unconscious. Where is God? From the Jungian perspective, God is in you, the larger you that represents everything ordered to the Good. The monotheistic religious system is an attempt to recognize and give voice to the Self. There is a bit of a problem, though: because you are a unique instantiation of the genome — and even identical twins are differentiated by experience — at some point the road you walk toward the Self is one you have to take alone.

You avoid inflation, narcissism, and solipsism by subordinating the Ego to the Self. Unlike the other, fractional archetypes, the Self will not betray your veneration. However, all the archetypes, even the Self, will make you a generic function of the instincts if you become identified with them, say by acting like a dogmatic partisan on Facebook.

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