Those of Faith and the Faithless: How We Make Decisions

Those of Faith and the Faithless: How We Make DecisionsTwo events happened recently that made me more aware of the importance of considering how we make decisions. Notice that I did not say “make decisions,” but rather “considering how we make decisions.” In formal life, we might use logic and decision theory to make business and living decisions. But for things that are of critical importance to us, we often deliberately reject logic.

One of the two critical events that prompted this piece is the death of my brother early this morning. That is not as sad as you might think. He had advanced MS and had been failing for some time. He knew it was time to go, and he was in a comfortable situation surrounded by family and loved ones. Any death close to you catches your attention. His wife wrote that he had been “peacefully reunited with the loved ones who preceded him.” Such a simple sentence, yet it encapsulated a whole philosophy and religious belief.

The other event was a two-hour special by Barbara Walters on Heaven. My wife had taped it and, totally by coincidence, we watched it on the night when my brother was slipping away. For two hours the show explored not just the concept of Heaven and how it has changed over the years, but the underlying assumptions about physical brains and souls. The topics ranged from Buddhism to the Judeo-Christian beliefs. She interviewed a jailed Islamic terrorist and compared his views with those of more orthodox beliefs. Atheists were also well-represented.

The show was extremely well-produced, but left me asking a lot of questions. These were not about the validity of a supernatural Heaven and Hell or even reincarnation. What I did question is how do people decide what to believe in the absence of rock-solid physical evidence? Do we have evidence of the separate existence of a soul independent of the 172 pounds of meat and bones that constitutes my physical self? People who have been clinically dead and revived give surprisingly consistent reports of their experiences that seem to be consistent with transition to a heavenly existence and then returning. Not so fast, the researchers say; normal oxygen starvation consistent with a brain shutting down can be shown to produce the same perceived phenomena. It is purely physical.

“But I believe,” some say, “because I know it is true.” Not so fast, the researchers say; we have identified and isolated part of the DNA which controls a feeling of spirituality. It is a physical thing, and has nothing to do with supernatural beings. Besides, when you think about how the human race evolved (No questions about evolution, please), selection for a gene that predisposes following a group mentality has obvious benefits.

The fact is that most of us make decisions about our place in the universe that are not based on hard logic. Even extreme secular humanists who try to accept only the things shown by scientific inquiry often have feelings akin to those of devout followers of organized religion.

As long as the decisions people make are consistent with relatively harmonious relations with the community at large, we tend to make allowances. Christians, Jews, Moslems, atheists, Hindus, and many other groups can, and do, live in relative harmony in spite of radically different beliefs based on teachings that are mutually contradictory. In fact, some belief systems can easily be shown to be self-contradictory, but intelligent people follow them.

So I am back to the original question: How do we make decisions?

My sister-in-law has no doubt whatsoever that souls exist and that our personality will survive earthly death. Like many modern people, I think she tends to equate Hell with torment of the living, not the dead. We make our own Hell on Earth. This is totally different from the concept most Christians had even a generation ago, and one does not have to look far today to find a “Hell and Brimstone” preacher who believes in a literal place of damnation where souls are perpetually tormented. My brother agreed with her in life. We do not know if he still does.

So why do some of us decide to lead our lives in accordance with religious assumptions? My own separation from a strict Protestant Mid-western Christianity came as a child when we studied the New Testament in Bible school and we came to Doubting Thomas. I decided he was a hero — a proto-scientific observer — and could not fathom why anyone would expect humans to put aside questioning, which is our greatest gift. My opinion was not valued in Bible school. The “Leap of Faith” was not for me. Do I not have the right genes?

This series is about decision making, and often we discuss artificial situations that have analogies in real life. The classic Prisoner’s Dilemma is a typical one. But maybe for fear of alienating readers, I tend to avoid the serious decisions we all make involving how to lead our lives in a meaningful way. This includes such things as where did we come from and where will we go.

Last year we had lunch with a couple of friends. The wife had been very sick and was clinically dead for some time, but had been revived and eventually recovered. By the time of our lunch, her situation had worsened again. She did not have long to live and knew it. She looked across the table and asked, “Where was I when I was dead?” That is a serious question. No jokes or levity, please. Recognizing my responsibility, I looked her in the eye and said she was in the same place where she had been when Caesar and Cleopatra walked the Earth. She looked at me for a long time and nodded, not in agreement, but in agreement that we cannot know in advance. We have to make the transition. Perhaps at this moment she is laughing about it with my brother. That would be nice.

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  • Ellen Marcus

    While I have never read the bible, my understanding is that it refers to hell as a very hot place with lots of fire. The Quran refers to it the same way (and I have read the Quran). It also refers to heaven as a place with gardens over flowing water and plenty of shade. My hypothesis is that people’s perceptions and ideals of heaven and hell are based upon their current surroundings – Hell being something you could almost physically touch in a desert-like place (presumably the location from which those books were written), and a heaven that would resemble the rare luxuries of such a location.

    I’m guessing that if a holy book were written in the modern Western society, heaven might be filled with an endless number of video games (all of them playable on a universal game console), and there would be no commercials on Hulu.

    • sdeforest

      Love it. And your opinion is as good as anyone else’s! You might check out the flying spaghetti monster.

    • Alex

      Hell as a place of burning came from the idea of Tartarus and heaven as a place of eternal bliss from the Elysian Fields. Both are taken from Greek mythology.

  • Ben

    We are shaped by whatever and whomever has the strongest influence over us at any given moment.

  • zitiboat

    What concerns me is your confusion between what you call
    logic and your trust in ALL science ( “make
    decisions about our place in the universe that are not based on hard logic.”)
    when in fact you have quoted instances of pseudo-science to further your point.
    Some examples I saw include

    “the researchers say; normal oxygen
    starvation consistent with a brain shutting down can be shown to produce the
    same perceived phenomena. It is purely physical.”

    “the researchers say; we have identified and
    isolated part of the DNA which controls a feeling of spirituality. It is a
    physical thing”

    Right away a fundamental principal of logic has been
    suspended. I refer you to Carl Sagan’s contention that “Wherever possible there
    must be independent confirmation of the facts“.

    These researchers of yours seem to have all the answers for
    you. May I remind you that at one time the researchers proved to the world that
    the sun revolves around our planet which is the center of the universe?
    Researchers also proved that the Earth was flat.

    If we are to truly use logic for making decisions we might
    admit that we do not know many of the mysteries of life or the physics of this
    universe and proceed with the understanding that some things may never be known
    to us.

    Carl Sagan is credited with a baloney detection test kit
    explained here:
    which starts with the assumption that the researchers may in fact be wrong and
    we should trust in actual logic to determine if we believe them.

  • Alex

    When we make decisions we actually base it on past experience and future expectations about the choice we are making and the positive repercussions from that choice. Much of our decision making is unconscious. Benjamin Franklin wrote of his decision making process. It was simple. He would take a sheet of paper and put a line down the center. On one side he would write all of the possible positive outcomes. On the other side he would write down all of the possible negative outcomes. He said that before he was half way through his decision was made. Decisions are made based on personal comfort. Many may not like to admit it but that is true. This is what the 3rd part of the first sentence is all about. As Albert Ellis, Ph.D. has stated, “Human beings are short-term hedonists.” We want for ourselves to be as comfortable as possible and any decision we make has that comfort at its basis.

  • sdeforest

    And for all those reasons, logic is often unused. That is neither good not bad. It just is. But we still have the question, what is personal comfort? Or rather, how do we develop a sense of what will give us personal comfort? My relatives are comforted by a belief in souls and heaven (probably not hell). Is that level of comfort enough by itself to justify passing on the belief system? That is an honest question.

  • sdeforest

    Okay,but where did the strongest whatever or whomever come from? What made them? Why do they shape us?

    • Ben

      1. “Where did the strongest whatever or whomever come from?”
      The same place you or I came from. Not trying to be cute but I’m influenced by my immediate surroundings. The people, laws, societal norms and morés, etc. I’m not influenced by what’s happening on the other side of the world or even on the other side of the country. These influences are fluid and change as our surroundings change.
      2. “What made them?”
      Either your personal god or supreme being (from a theological standpoint) or the people, laws, societal norms and morés, etc that were influential to them.
      3. “Why do they shape us?”
      Because as humans we are hard-wired to follow like sheep. Independent thoughts or actions usually brand us as non-conformists, or rebels, or radicals, or trouble-makers by those in authority (AKA: those who have declared themselves to be the strongest.)

      • sdeforest

        Your approach seems to be similar to that of the classic behaviorists. As to shaping, I am a fan of the late Stephen Jay Gould who repeatedly said that if we could rewind the evolution video and play it again, the odds of coming up with anything like what we have is nil. That is, evolution to intelligent life is not a foregone conclusion and certainly not to human life. It happened. Here we are. The question for this series is how do we decide what to believe about human life when we do not have specific scientific proof.

  • Tinman57

    This is something that I have contemplated many times over the years. After going around the world over 15 times, I have seen and heard many things that defy explanation. When I look at the wonders of the world and its inhabitants, I can only come to one conclusion….. This was by design.

    • sdeforest

      Although I do not share the design hypothesis, I respect your willingness to seek and observe. Beware of things “that defy explanation”. Many people in primitive cultures could not explain cell phones or television, but good explanations can be found. Just because these explanations are based on design does not mean all explanations require design. Counter examples are plenty.

      • Tinman57

        The comparison to primitives not being able to explain cell phones and such is kind of a moot point considering I’m not a primitive. I am sciential and look at everything for what it is. There are some things in this world that defy science, but yet scientist are still studying them to the point of even trying to find evidence of god. Some things just aren’t meant to be discovered or explained.

        • sdeforest

          How did you decide which things we should/could not discover or explain? Years ago I taught quantum mechanics and watched as students struggled with the extensions of knowledge to very small things. When I said to beware of things that defy explanation, I was pleading for humility in assessing the limits of knowledge. I have no idea of the best answer to most of the questions in this thread. I can live with that. And I try to avoid foisting anything other than a love of inquiry.

  • sdeforest

    Your lengthy comment has left me puzzled. It seems as though you are responding to a different post because you say things that are not in the article. You refer to my confusion and then refer to my trust in all science, which is a total construction of yours. The article carefully avoided all absolutes and even indicated my own questioning of the ability of the discipline we call science to answer all questions. I suspect you read my article through some theocratic lenses.

    Carl Sagan was a great man and said many great things including his reference to extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. With that in mind, go back and re-read (or read) the part about DNA and spirituality. I did not claim any final verdict. Similarly with near-death experiences. I take the data and deliberately suspend judgement until the evidence one way or the other is overwhelming. You might try the same.before calling me confused. I am confused enough without others adding bogus confusion to the mix.