It's in our nature to believe stuff; we just can't help ourselves. As science writer Michael Shermer likes to put it, we are all 'belief engines' - and not just about religion, UFOs and the supernatural, but also science, politics, culture and everything else that makes up our mental universes.  But what's so surprising to me - given how hungry our neural circuits always are for novelty - is how static and conserved our beliefs actually are. And here I mean all of humanity for the last 2.5 thousand years.  

It seems just short of astonishing that even in the 21st century, essentially all of the world's belief traditions come from a single time in history - the Axial Age, from about 800-200 BC. That's roughly the Middle Iron Age for most of Eurasia and North Africa. That's not only a while back, but also a pretty short time span - roughly between Homer and Hannibal. Or a single Chinese dynasty (Zhou). That may sound like overblown hyperbole - something like Alfred North Whitehead's oft-quoted claim that all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.  But when you go down the list of what came from the Axial Age, the basic foundations for how we see the world today are essentially all there. 

And it's not just that all our religion, spirituality, and moral belief in the Golden Rule originated here. It's also all the pieces we think of as belonging to secular modernity - humanism, rationality, materialism, even democracy and market economies. The Renaissance was in fact, very aptly named - it was rebirth, not new discovery. It's the same with the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, at least when you're talking about the fundamental precepts. It's not that enormous progress hasn't been made of course; obviously we're no longer using sundials and bleeding sick people. And by the way, we send robots to Mars. But you could also make the case that Democritus, Epicurus and friends might smile today at a lecture on string theory and rightly say "You didn't build that". Our current scientific conception of ultimate reality is, as it was for them, tiny units of matter obeying strict mathematical rules written, somehow, by 'nature'. 

That's not only surprising, but I think a big problem that will only get more pressing over time. All of our belief traditions - including even, yes, the scientific ones - are overdue for a serious makeover. In short, it's really time for us to move beyond the Iron Age. Here's just the roughest outline of why I think so.

On religion, my basic points have been said as well or better elsewhere. If I just list religious war, denial of science, misogyny and sexual abuse scandals, and say I don't think those would really be the ideal cultural contributions to carry into the future, I think you know what I mean. It's not that any religion explicitly supports any of these, of course, but honestly, they're pretty much an unavoidable side effect when real-life, all-too-human people take ancient Iron Age texts too literally. Unless you're a fundamentalist/orthodox believer, I assume you agree with the point already. And if you are, then almost by definition there isn't much I can write here that will persuade you. Of course if you're an atheist, you're just shaking your head at the whole thing anyway. 

I'll also only touch briefly here on Buddhism, the fourth largest religious/spiritual segment after Hinduism. Forget for the moment, all the legacy stuff from Hinduism (e.g., reincarnation, Karma, etc) and just focus on its basic philosophical insights. Technically, they're called the Four Great Truths, part of which is the Eightfold Path, of which my layman's summary is: we suffer because we cling to stuff. (Or rather, our illusions of stuff) The way to stop clinging is to live a good, moral life, practice mindfulness, and meditate. Everything else is, to me at least, a lot of bells and whistles. Sam Harris has a great article on this point that the Buddha himself might  have largely agreed with. Even reduced to that, though, Buddhism is still a system of 'revealed truth' - i.e. it just makes various claims and then passes those on as faithfully and conservatively as possible. Buddhism of course has several different branches, but these are all add-ons; none of them contradict the basic doctrines themselves. It's all the more ironic that the Buddha explicitly admonished his followers to question all of his teachings, when in fact the tradition has no mechanism for doing so. Query a Buddhist about specific points in their doctrine, and the answer usually starts with "The Sutras say that..." or "Master So-And-So teaches that..." In another posting I'll get into where I think meditative traditions like Buddhism can do better on this point. Specifically, where I think some of the basic doctrines can and should be adapted. 

So much for spiritual metaphysics, at least for now. The very delightful author Karen Armstrong makes the point that many big sages of the Axial Age - like Parshva, the Buddha, Zoroaster,  Confucius and Socrates - were actually more interested in how to live a moral life than in metaphysics anyway. In a way, maybe the Golden Rule was the greatest innovation of the Axial Age. If we could keep only one thing from the age, my vote would be for that. It sure beats the prevailing eye-for-an-eye thing from the Bronze Age. 

But here's where I think Iron Age moral thinking will get us into trouble; and in fact, where it already does. First, a warning: I'm going to write something incredibly controversial here, and compound it by being too brief here to defend it adequately. But here goes: We're taught throughout our lives to think in terms of individual responsibility. We're the captains of our soul, masters of our destiny. We can choose, say, to go with God or against him; make good Karma or bad; meditate or not.  It's all on us. We're free to choose. If you're among the overwhelming majority who are convinced we do, in fact, have something we can meaningfully call free will, there's not much I can write in such a format to convince you otherwise. (Though I would invite you at some point to nevertheless have a look at Sam Harris' talk on the subject.) I will claim here, though, that someday, maybe in this century, whether we like it or not, 'free-willers' will be in the minority. It's not that the philosophical arguments will become more forceful - at least to me they are as clear as ever, anyway. But the neuroscience of the mind will become so ubiquitous in its accounts, so pervasive and encompassing, that the arguments will take on a visceral meaning even in everyday life. It's inevitable - whatever room you think is left for arguing the case for free will, it is shrinking just as fast as neuroscience makes progress. And that's when the trouble will begin; we have yet to adapt our system of laws, social interactions or psychology to such a seismic shift in the way we look and treat each other and ourselves. But we will have to. 

Again, that's a controversial claim - even many neuroscientists would dispute it. But then again, many 19th century biologists also disputed the theory of evolution. Many physicists including Einstein disputed quantum mechanics. Ancient habits of thought die hard, and the belief in free will holds on for dear life like nothing else in the human mind. I think the reason we cling to the idea so resolutely, and are willing to accept so many cognitive dissonances within us to hold on to it, is that we think we need it to survive. The idea that we don't have any such thing as free will is, I think, literally terrifying to most. It seems we would give up everything about us if we give up on free will. Life would become a meaningless pit of despair, with no reason to do anything, no reason to even live at all. Let me be the first to say I feel your pain; I know what you mean. I've been there. But let me also give hope: if absorbed properly, the realization that free will - like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny - is just figment of your imagination, is actually one of the most liberating and healing perspectives possible. Finally, it may sound paradoxical, but I think we would actually have a better society for it. More on that in future posts. 

Next topic: getting science itself out of the Iron Age.
 


Ian Braun
04/03/2013 7:35pm

Very interesting take here. I must say that your first controversial statement was calling Michael Shermer a "scientific writer." I don't know what i would call him. . .but that wouldn't be it. More of a social commentator from a scientific perspective, or something. The rest of it I'm on board with. . .except you being called a gadfly. The family has never been that generous with you.

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