I’ll transcribe most of it here for those who can’t watch the video; but do watch it when you can.
I think truth and reason have always been slaves to the passions (…) truth is not very much a part of how humans deal with things except at a very mundane level; we have to know what’s true when we cross the street; but the quest for truth is subject to persuasion and victory in argument. And I think what’s really has motivated human beings out of the caves, what’s driven their civilization forward, what drives political movements, as well as religions, are transcendental beliefs, that go beyond material self-interests of people or even evolutionary concerns like fitness.
Humans had had our present bodies for 200,000 years, but were still stuck in Africa; while our more primitive cousins such as homo herectus or Neanderthals are roaming around the planet, homo sapiens are down to 2,000 souls, on the verge of extinction, and then bang, around 70,000 years ago, out of Africa, and then in the blink of an eye in geological terms, there’s flying to the moon.
How did this happen? Obviously there was some kind of computational mutation in the brain that allowed for language and theory of mind (I know that he knows…) that allows for deception and construction of an imaginary world. The interesting thing is the human ability to form larger and larger groupings, and to be able to sacrifice themselves for this non-genetic and increasingly anonymous strangers. And that’s what allowed human beings to dominate the Earth, and dominate the rest of their competitors.
So how did that happen? And what is it based on? Well certainly religions are only one part of it. Nations, for example, the idea of the nation itself, is sort of a middle ground between transcendental movements like human rights, which are initially based of absurd ideas, such as “humans are equal”, we have all these “God given rights”, and anthropomorphic gods. It has characteristics of both of them: the nations feel, the nations do things, the nations demands of you. And it’s not just metaphorical. But religions are basically the foundation of this; we have gone a little beyond this in Western societies, but not much.
And let me tell you how I think it’s been so successful. First of all there wouldn’t have been any societies without religion, without transcendental beliefs. Which are absurd. They have to be preposterous. The basic tenets are not false beliefs. They are preposterous beliefs. Something like Aristotle’s category violations, a “four-footed idea”. It’s not something that even has truth conditions. So it’s open to interpretation, which makes it so adaptable. That’s why you have sermons, and imams, and rabbis, and priests, giving you every week a new version of what it actually means, because the foundations of them are meaningless.
But you need meaningless ideas, unfalsifiable, and unverifiable. Otherwise, it’s a mere social contract of convenience which has an exit strategy and people can defect any time they want. Once you buy into this apparently absurd beliefs, and think about it, the more apparently absurd they are, the deeper the trust they engender. And stronger the societies are in competition with other societies. And Darwin of course was the first to point this out in The Descent of Man, saying : why do the heroes and martyrs come into being? They are willing to die and commit to this… what? What are they dying for? They’re not dying even for their families, because they know they are gonna die. They are dying for abstract ideas, abstract causes, which no other creature but man re subject. And human beings will do their utmost exertion for ill or good, not for the sake of kith and kin, but collectively for the sake of abstract ideas. And these abstract ideas are unverifiable, and unfalsifiable
The nation, is again one of them, and so is human rights. In the middle of the 18th century, a bunch of European intellectuals decided that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator, or Providence, with [the right of ] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But for 99.5% of human history, there were cannibals, oppressed minorities, unequal and suddenly a bunch of intellectuals decide to engineer society so it would be different. It worked, but it was based on an absurd idea to begin with.
You can see that during the course of history, moralizing gods become more important as civilizations grow. Could civilization continue to advance? Well we haven’t found anything other than belief in transcendental ideas. The idea that human rights is qualitatively different than all the other transcendental ideas I just don’t buy. I once interviewed the head of a white supremacist movement in the US, and he told me “evil is the failure to participate in a race war”. And there was a whole nation of people who actually believed this, and their soldiers by the way were the strongest fighters in the world because they truly bought into that. Human rights and civilization is a very intermittent phenomenon. It’s working now for a bunch of reasons, which is the overwhelming military might and economic power of the Western alliance, but it is a fragile thing. Democracy is not assured by any means. And the idea of human rights as something that is practical is true. It is been made practical it has been socially engineered to be practical. Look at the framers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The debates. Or the debates of the Continental Congress about how to frame the Declaration of Independence. The word they used was “sacred”. It was Ben Franklin who imposed “self-evident” because it seemed more rational and it was easier to sell to his philosophical society. But these were sacred ideas, unverifiable, unfalsifiable and which they pledge their honor, their lives and their fortunes. What other things are we willing, besides our own family, to pledge our lives, our honors and our fortunes? To some other contract of convenience? No. It has to be something that moves us, that moves people, that moves nations. And I think for that, we need such ideas.
Like morality itself, [religion] is both the devil and the angel of human history. It is responsible for both. First of all, just as a matter of fact, if you look at the Encyclopedia of War, religions are responsible for about 7% of wars. So it’s not overly responsible for war across human history, and in the last century it’s been minimally responsible for wars. It’s had a comeback recently.
The content of religious beliefs are what people make of them at the moment. What they agree upon them at the moment. They aren’t fixed, they are forever adaptable. And that is why they are counterintuitive and absurd. Because if they were fixed, if you could give them propositional content, if you could falsify them, or verify them, they’d be stuck. So they have to be open.
And you can’t simply say they’re ungrounded and false beliefs. Because they just aren’t. I did an experiment after an argument with Richard Dawkins, “religions are bad memes, they are things that flow around on people’s brains, they infect them they take them over. So we made this experiment, I put on the Ten Commandments on the board, and had somebody pick up one of the Ten Commandments, like “you shall not bow before false idols”. Then someone who didn’t see it came in the room and had to paraphrase it. And we went through ten iterations of that. Then I put a whole bunch of propositions on the board, and after the tenth person I asked: what did the last person tell you? Not a single one picked up one of the commandments. Everybody had their interpretations, they all thought they meant the same thing. Like, “I should spend more time with my family”, “money isn’t everything”, whatever it was. The only people who actually recognized the originally commandments were autists. Because they literally paraphrased every version of it. Normally the way we handle religious beliefs is not fixed in some fundamental, literal sense, but to give it a sense of community for us. I’m an atheistic humanistic guy, I work with people in Al Qaeda and other groups, and I find the devotion to religious beliefs to be basically the same.
[Religion] is as part of human nature as our language, and our basic cognitive thought processes. We are group animals. When Durkheim talks about religion, he simply says substitute the word group for God, and you’ve got it. We are group animals, we live in groups and we live in increasingly larger groups of anonymous strangers. How are we gonna keep them together?
The moment we have a theory of mind, I know that you know that he knows, which again emerged probably with the faculty of language around 70,000 years ago, you have deception in line. So how do you stop defection? Now if it’s just again a social contract, where it’s a matter of convenience and utilitarian calculation, well logic tells you “let me look for a better deal down the line”. Then by backward induction, you say: “well if there’s a better deal down the line better for me to defect now”. So societies would fall apart pretty quick. So if you don’t want societies to fall apart, if you want something larger than a tribe and a family, you’re gonna need them.
There’s a prize for those who can see the connection between this and my other recent posts.