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Richard asked:

Given that religion is a subset of superstition, why is there no philosophy of superstition?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

There’s a scene towards the end of Deepwater Horizon (2010), a dramatization of the 2010 offshore BP drilling rig disaster, when the rescued survivors all kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Which got me thinking: what about the Atheists? weren’t there any? If you were there — cut, bruised, burnt, half dead from exhaustion — would you be so churlish as to remain standing, stuck right out there in the middle, spoiling the vibe?

Probably not, and what does that mean anyway. To kneel requires a tiny self-sacrifice, in the larger scheme of things. Let others enjoy the comforts of their ‘superstitious’ beliefs.

There is a ‘philosophy of superstition’. The classic text is David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) which includes a compelling description of the way human beings seem to have a irrepressible bias towards believing in the improbable and the fantastical — the very opposite of the way you would expect beliefs to be formed in response to experience.

From an evolutionary perspective this seems strange. What use is a belief-forming mechanism that leads us to form false beliefs? That is a question that Freud addressed in his account of the stages of human development from the ‘omnipotence of the ego’ to the ‘reality principle’. A crude way of stating this would be that those who are more tempted to belief in the fantastical — whether it be the doctrines of religion, or Illuminati, or crop circles, or the Law of Attraction — haven’t quite made it in their cognitive development.

However, I don’t accept your premise that religion is superstition. That’s not even close. Marx was getting warmer when he said that religion is the ‘the soul of soulless conditions, the heart of a heartless world’. If the world wasn’t so bad, the oppressed wouldn’t need to drug themselves with religion.

Humans seem to have an innate tendency towards needing someone or something to thank, when thanks are due, or call for help when help is needed. Each and every one of us was once a helpless infant, and dire circumstances bring out the helpless infant in all of us. Those feelings are genuine and real. It doesn’t mean that you are infantile.

As the movie illustrates, humans also like to pray together. It gives them a warm feeling of solidarity, the celebration of communion as  the British existentialist John Macmurray called it in his Gifford Lectures (Persons in Relation, 1961).

Despite those undeniable facts, it has been proved sufficiently many times to not require further proof, that a person can live a full human life without the crutch of religion to lean upon, and many in fact do.

As an atheist, I hold that religion is a serious challenge, which needs to be overcome if the human race is to move forward and take responsibility upon ourselves for making the world better for every living being. Regardless of its touted benefits, religion has all the hallmarks of an infectious and debilitating mental illness. Finding the correct diagnosis is crucial for achieving a lasting cure.

Deb asked:

If someone is asking you to forgive them for their ‘failures’, is that too non-specific to actually forgive? I would respond that ‘failing’ at something is not something to forgive. I don’t want to ask for specifics but I don’t take forgiveness lightly and only want to extend it when I actually mean it. Your thoughts?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

If this was our rival web site — whose name I will not mention here — you would be treated to a long lecture on the ‘concept’ of forgiveness and its ‘logic’. The problem is, we are dealing with personal relationships, which are not necessarily governed by logic but what one might call dialogic. Dialogic focuses much more on nuance and context, then on the strict and literal meanings of words.

Let me give some examples:

A: “Forgive me for my failures.”
B: “Which failures are you talking about exactly? Your failure to remember my birthday? or your getting drunk and ruining last night’s dinner party? or not winning the contract that was a ‘dead cert’ and was going to pay for our Caribbean holiday? or…”

A.”Forgive me for my failures.”
B. “Do you mean Robert, or Dennis, or Nigel, or Jeffrey, or…?”

A. “Forgive me for my failures.”
B. “Well, I forgive you for being such a failure.”

Lacking further context, one’s judgement must be provisional, but my initial sympathies are with A in the first and third of these exchanges, and with B in the second.

Doesn’t it say in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins…’? Imagine God saying in reply, ‘Tell me which sins you are talking about and I’ll tell you whether or not I forgive you!’

In the third case, a person who admits to having ‘failed’ on more than one occasion is certainly not admitting to being a ‘failure’. On the contrary, the implication may be that there are a lot of positive and good things to put on the other side of the scale to balance the bad.

If we were being logical, then one could make the point that not all sins/ transgressions are ‘failures’. In order to fail, you have to try. The problem with this is that it is a very human failing to be incapable of ‘trying’ when one needs to, lacking the will or motivation. ‘Try to pull yourself together!’ is not something that it is appropriate to say in many situations where we are tempted to say it. You have to bite your tongue and offer a strong hug instead.

‘Forgive me for my failures’ can be a way of saying that you wanted to be more, but this is the very best you can do. Or it can (as you say) be a way of evading responsibility by retreating into generalities. You can glory in your ‘failures’, be proud that you failed, or experience anguish at the self-knowledge that when the chips are down you have repeatedly failed those who depend on you.

All of these things can be forgiven in the appropriate context. Habitually evading responsibility is an unpleasant character flaw, one that can be difficult for others to address, whether sympathetically or unsympathetically. Whatever they say, you believe in your heart of hearts that ‘it isn’t my fault’. Even that may be forgiveable.

I am not going to spin this out into a long essay. The short answer is that the ‘specifics’ are always relevant. No philosophical pronouncement can decide the question, even when the external facts are known — because the two partners in dialogue know more than just the external facts. They are in a continually adjusting dynamic, each making the best effort they can — or not, as the case may be.

One generality one can offer with confidence is that when breakdown of dialogue does occur, most often both parties believe that they are the one who has been ‘wronged’.

Dennis asked:

Why is life on Earth so precarious, with old age and death necessary?

As the truths of metaphysics and overcoming of aging is on the human threshold, it looks like that is what humans were designed to do — True?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

Let me make a confession, Dennis. I want to live forever. I really do. And I also want to know the ultimate nature of reality. I mean, really know. And do you know what? In my mind, somehow the two are inextricably linked. If I knew the ultimate nature of reality, I could not die. Death would be impossible. And if I found a way to escape death, now and forever more, I would surely know the ultimate nature of reality.

Actually, that’s not a new idea. That’s what Jesus told his followers. ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ he famously says to Thomas (John 14:6). For many millions of people, the Christian (not only Christian) ‘family story’ IS the ultimate reality, and sincere belief is all you need — to live forever.

And if you are a philosopher, on the track of truth — or so you hope and believe — does that necessarily mean you have to be a sceptic, accept limitation and finitude, Heideggerian ‘being towards death’ and the ultimate nihilation of everyone and everything you have ever cared for?

If that thought makes you depressed, then maybe Plato is more your man. Actually, the Pythagorean idea of reincarnation — the Pythagoreans were one of Plato’s major influences — is not a million miles away from what the contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett preaches. The self is just a program (a Pythagorean ‘number’ — it could be a Gödel number, get it?). Logic and set theory are eternal, true in all possible worlds. The Dennis-program is eternal. All you need is suitable equipment to ‘upload’ it to and off you go. Again. And again, for ever.

All material structures are finite by their very nature. Nothing can escape the ultimate death of this material universe. But sets and numbers don’t need a ‘universe’, because they form a permanent universe of their own. Your fragile human body will certainly die, but the possibility that YOU will come back is logical, not physical. The ultimate nature of reality is just as Plato said: logical and rational. The eternal Forms. And you — a ‘soul’ — are another entity of a similar kind (‘akin’ to the Forms, as Plato claims in the Phaedo), logically indestructible.

I’m not going to attempt to fill the serious logical gaps in this story, because although you ask whether your idea is ‘true’, I don’t think truth is really the issue. (You weren’t seriously thinking that somehow technology will solve the problem of human finitude, were you?!) This is about what you and I want, deep down. Trying to understand what that is about.

As a matter of empirical fact, or, rather, speculation, it is conceivable that human beings and all life on Earth were designed — say, by a superior multi-dimensional alien race. Why not? Maybe the multi-dimensional aliens didn’t need to ‘evolve’. Make up any story you like. But, obviously, it’s not going to solve any problem if the aliens are, essentially, in the same predicament as we are, dependent on a long chain of contingencies that could alter at any time, leading to their total extinction.

That’s not what we want. That’s just another ‘story’. So all all that’s left is metaphysics. See if you can improve on Plato. So long as you are on the way to a solution, however long that way may be, there is always hope. — Better put that thinking cap on!

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