"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Universe Is A Crapshoot

Which is the way I normally state the position taken in this post by Tom Sullivan at Hullabaloo. He starts off:

Psychologists at the Yale Mind and Development Lab explore the human tendency to believe that "everything happens for a reason."

We look for causes. I don't really know if this is hard-wired or the results of millennia of conditioning, but we do. From the article he cites:

This tendency to see meaning in life events seems to reflect a more general aspect of human nature: our powerful drive to reason in psychological terms, to make sense of events and situations by appealing to goals, desires and intentions. This drive serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately. But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design.

I take this as the basis of our tendency to personify animals and objects, to ascribe meanings and motivations that may or may not there. (In the case of animals, probably, although we may not really understand their motivations, which is one reason birds fascinate me: they're sometimes fairly inscrutable, such as when a whole flock just suddenly takes wing for no apparent reason. And cats are the masters of inscrutability. Objects? Not so much.) Ultimately, it's the basis of religion: natural phenomena become persons of great power and sometimes inscrutable motives -- gods and spirits. (The article notes that many people believe this tendency is the result of religious belief. It's actually the other way around.)

The consequences can be devastating:
Whatever the origin of our belief in life’s meaning, it might seem to be a blessing. Some people find it reassuring to think that there really are no accidents, that what happens to us — including the most terrible of events — reflects an unfolding plan. But the belief also has some ugly consequences. It tilts us toward the view that the world is a fundamentally fair place, where goodness is rewarded and badness punished. It can lead us to blame those who suffer from disease and who are victims of crimes, and it can motivate a reflexive bias in favor of the status quo — seeing poverty, inequality and oppression as reflecting the workings of a deep and meaningful plan.

I'm not sure that these are the best examples -- poverty, inequality, and oppression are not random events: there are human actors involved somewhere along the line. (Just think about the increase in poverty and the steady decline in the standard of living for most of us in the richest country on earth. Sorry, that didn't just happen.) But for victims of natural disasters and just plain old accidents, the conclusion can hold true. In Sullivan's words,"$#!+ happens." For a religious believer, "It's God's will," whatever variety of god you happen to believe in.

There. That should be something to chew on for a while. And do click through and read Sullivan's post. It's not terribly long, but it's incisive.

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