Varnishing the truth

I was wondering whether scepticism might have become too much of a habit with me, yesterday.

I suffered a wholly-predictable fake vitiligo ill effect, through ignoring the “wear gloves” warning on a can of floor varnish. Plus, I suffered the loss of what would have been a 25 to 1 return on a small investment, when I ignored the Grand National tip given to me by a drunk in the street. So I woke up this morning feeling that a bit more willful gullibility might profit me.

However, reading an old post on Deep Thoughts about unconvincing arguments for the existence of god, I was forced back to my natural state. Mojoey reckoned that the argument about having a had personal experience of god was

.. my personal favorite because I hear it the most, and what can you say? So they talked to god…

This brings up my own ideas about personal experience of transcendence. To which I am going to subject you, sorry.

Part of being human is a capacity for inspiration. Our minds are certainly capable of a lot more than just logical thought. We certainly have an imagination and a capacity for wonder and an ability to understand things through intuition. But we don’t have much of a language for expressing these feelings even to ourselves.

We are really bad at expressing physical feelings in language. Generally, there is no way of telling of your “sharp pain” is my “dull pain” or if your experience of hunger or tiredness is remotely like mine. This is multiplied any number of times when it comes to expressing emotional feelings.

Whatever language we speak, other languages have words for emotions that we all recognise but our langauge doesn’t express. English has no precise word for the French “ennui”, the German “Schadenfreude” or the Portuguese “saudades,” for instance.

Religion’s success in cornering the market in feelings of transcendence is based on its capacity to give them expression. It provides metaphors and observances and a community. So, religions can then hijack these experiences, tack on some traditional rules and put them to the service of some social group’s needs.

What’s the difference between the person who hears god’s voice telling them to go out and murder prostitutes and the person who feels that praying to Jesus Christ has helped them win a sporting event? They are both listening to an inner voice. In the first case, as a society, we take it for granted that that person is dangerously insane (unless we are unlucky enough to be involved in one of the periodic waves of massacre in the name of a religion, in which case, we assume it’s the will of god revealed, if we are on the massacring side.)

In the second case, it seems churlish not to take the person’s belief as legitimate. But it’s not, given the thousands of equally deserving people who don’t win at their sports or whose illnesses aren’t miraculously healed. Who must feel a lot worse if they believe that God deliberately refused them. It actually seems more churlish to go with the idea that god plays favourites.

Here, monotheism loses hands down to pantheism, in a Most-churlish Competition. If there are dozens of gods, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, who are constantly bickering, the failure to lift the most weight in a World’s Strongest Man competition for instance, just suggests that you backed a loser to be a sycophant to. Maybe Hera got the better of Hercules on this one. So much more comforting.

How do we distinguish “sane” messages from imaginary friends from “insane” ones? Making value judgements, on the outcomes is not enough. Many people, whom we would not see as “insane”, do evil things on the basis of instructions from deities and almost all “insane” people are completely harmless.

Both these instances involve feelings, which the brain translates into concepts it can deal with through metaphor, i.e. language. Given the unlikelihood of there ever being any language of mental states, we can only subject conversations with imaginary friends to the power of sceptical reasoning.

But, it is usually wiser suspend your disbelief, when it comes to the instructions on a tin of varnish.

2 thoughts on “Varnishing the truth

  1. I posted on this myself a while ago…you can read my take on this here.

    That varnish stuff is nasty. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way, too.

  2. slut
    Thanks a lot. Yours a really good post and puts this point much better. I should have read it first…..

    (Sorry, I can’t post this as comment on your site due to not being able to see the anti-robit picture in Internet Explorer.)

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