Monday, February 23, 2009

Why do we do what we do?

A question I've been more a more interested in lately. Here's a theory I've not come up with a rebuttal for:


 

We only do what we want to do.


 

At first, it seems easy to find counter-examples to this. In fact, every day I get out of bed and suffer through about half and hour of feeling like crap. I don't want to ever get out of bed. Unless I've slept at least 11 hours and can lay there for 20 minutes or so. I also have worked at McDonalds and Jack in the Box. I also clean the bathtub from time to time. Diaper changes, tithe paying, exercise and countless other things I've done despite wishing that I was doing something else. But the thing is that all of these things I do are being done in service to something that I DO want to do. I clean the bathtub because I don't want to bathe in filth. I changed diapers because I wanted to be a good father and husband. I pay tithe because I want to be in a community of believers that I support. I exercise because I want to be healthy.

If an activity is a means to an end, isn't it that end that should be counted as the motivation? When viewed this way I can't think of anything that humans do besides what they want to do. Every action is at the service of some fundamental desire or character trait. Why do prostitute do what they do? They desire the drugs more than a desire for control of their bodies. Slaves choose servitude over death. Even children forced into slavery could be said to desire life enough to justify whatever horrific act they are forced to do. Although you could also argue that since some children may not even understand the concept of suicide, they may be truly in a position of not doing what they want to do. So maybe this theory can't fully cover every human. I'll just say in the broad area of most adult humans.

So in general, we only do what we want to do. I'm sure I've got some huge blind spot that won't let me see how this rule is wrong. But until someone points it out to me I'll continue to pontificate from this perspective like a flailing myopic batter in the Special Olympics. I think this idea of only doing what we want to has some interesting ramifications for faith. We only do what we want to do may be an overly-reductionist take on human behavior. Here's a possibly overly reductionist take on faith:


 

Faith is a projection of what we want to believe.


 

After all, do any of us have faith in someone or something that we don't want to believe in? The very reason we put our faith in a thing is because it appeals to our sense of reason, right, or agrees with other things we feel are established truths. For example, I feel fairly confident that the more power is in the hands of any government the less free and fair a society becomes. Because of this I simply cannot put my faith in my current president or his policies. When it comes to religious beliefs, I know from experience that most Christians believe in an eternal hell for everyone who does not believe in Jesus in this life. But most of them don't like the idea at all. But they have faith in this idea because they want to believe "the Bible". (Which I would point out that the faith is really in a particular interpretation of selected texts.) Because of this desire to have a completely authoritative text they are willing to swallow stuff they would never swallow if it was presented in a different context. I guarantee you if the Greek word aion were never translated to the Latin word aeternus, then Christians would shake their heads at the cruel Egyptian and Greek myths of eternal torment for the wicked. They would be horrified at the concept like they are with other pagan religious practices like infant sacrifice and child prostitution. But, as it was God's good plan to have this word contorted to 'eternal', now we poor Christians have to contort our logic, natural emotional reactions, and theology into all sorts of wacky shapes to accommodate the idea.

But I'm getting off course again. Let's look at how the author of Hebrews defines faith:


 

Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Heb. 11:1)


 

Now compare that to my last definition. I think they synergize quite well. We interpret the world around us based on the way we want to view the world. Grumpy people see a lot of bad stuff all the time. Cheery people see a lot of beauty. Both can be seeing the same thing or event and because of their attitudes, see and interpret it very differently. This is based on where their faith lies. I think we put our faith where we do based on our personalities. We project our desires on reality to interpret it. We project our hope, just like Hebrews 11:1 says. Of course I have a problem with Hebrew's definition of faith, because according to that guy I'm not allowed to have any since I don't believe anyone can have certainty about anything. Assuming the original Greek words that are translated as "sure" and "certain" are as 'hard' as they are in English. The English Standard version has it: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That I can agree with. I have conviction, not certainty. I'm not sure what the first part means. It must be a concept that doesn't translate easily since almost every version renders a different word for the Greek "hupostasis". KJV says "Faith is the substance of things hoped for…" Darby has: "Faith is the substantiating of things hoped for." CEV has: "Faith makes us sure of what we hope for…" Strong's Greek definition is as follows: "hoop-os'-tas-is: From a compound of G5259 and G2476; a setting under (support), that is, (figuratively) concretely essence, or abstractly assurance (objectively or subjectively): - confidence, confident, person, substance." Haha… somewhere in there is a way to make the definition fit my ideas. I saw the word 'confidence', and that's what I have in my beliefs. Anyway, I was going this direction for a reason, and now I can't remember what it was. But on an unrelated-to-this-blog, but totally-related-to-my-Out On A Limb piece, here is a shining example of how one can swing the perceived meaning of a verse from one angle to another effortlessly. I think it's silly to think there is "one plain meaning" of any verse when these kinds of translational shenanigans are happening behind the scenes. I didn't like how the verse sounded in one or two versions of an English translation, so I dug around until I found a translation I preferred and backed it up with some group of translator's opinions about words that it could mean. Now I have the same verse backing up my agnosticism. If some guy without a theology degree and with a clear bias can do that, what makes you think any translating institution wouldn't swing all the verses you read in the biased direction they lean?

Wow… WAY off topic now. I'll try to course-correct:

So here I see two spheres of life with a connected idea. We do what we want to do, and we believe what we want to believe. I'll make it personal. I want to believe in God, Jesus, the Biblical narrative. Even if my meandering philosophical wanderings force me away from an explicitly Christian view of reality, I could simply never live without a belief in a single, loving God who gives order and purpose to our lives. I am psychologically unable to cope with the world of the atheist or the Buddhist or the polytheist. Call it a weakness, call it a strength, call it what you will. Whatever it is, it is my personality, and it dictates my beliefs far more powerfully than whatever evidence exists out there. It dictates what evidence I'm willing to consider, and which I'll dismiss as silly or destructive. It determines how long or how hard I will study conflicting views. It drives my mental processes, my attitudes, strengthens my resolve to be a good person and take responsibility for myself and my family. (And hopefully eventually my community.) I think that if I had a different personality then I would be driven in a different direction.

But that can't be the whole of it. If it was the case that specific personalities were driven in predictable directions than any organization would be full of very similar people. If the Christian story only appealed to a sub-group of people, then wouldn't Christianity be a monolith of identical personalities? I guess I would answer yes and no. I think most Christians are like me in that they can't even imagine a world without God. At least not a good one. That doesn't mean we all like the same music or movies and respond identically to politics and agree on how to raise children. Those traits are more specific than a general need for faith in the supernatural. But I think the cultural context a person is in will tend shunt those of like general characteristics into similar paths. Had I been raised in Indonesia I'm sure I would have been a very good Buddhist or Muslim. (At least until I came into my questioning phase.) I would gather with those who had the conviction that there is a transcendent reality that deserves more than a cursory ritual every once in a while. And why would we all believe that? Because we WANT to.

This entire entry is a silly, premature impulse to investigate psychology and how it interacts with faith and religion. Since I have even less knowledge of the field of psychology than I do of theology and philosophy I am more than certain that I'm running rough-shod over all sorts of meticulous categories and mangling ideas from different schools of thought. Sort of like the neo-atheists do to philosophy when they dabble in it. So rather than a statement of belief, this is just an indication that I'm interested in the field of psychology. I'm curious about how the humanists flatten us all to chemical reactions and how the faithful respond in that arena.

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