Narrative and Identity

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“Once upon a time…”, the familiar phrase introduced to us in childhood lets us prepare ourselves bodily and dispositionally for an anticipated tale. It’s a deeply embedded cue to listen attentively and engage your imagination. Narrative and imagination go hand-in-hand. We visualise places we’ve never been and form emotional ties to characters that don’t exist anywhere but the page. We root for a protagonist and empathise with their suffering. When they encounter a problem we feel that we are right there with them. When they overcome what seemed like impossible odds we feel joy and exhilaration. When we finish reading, listening or watching a well told tale, the story leaves its mark on us. The seeming ubiquity of storytelling as a method of enculturation hints at narrative being one of those demarcating features of humankind even if the cultural content varies.

Whether we intend it or not, stories are a means by which children acquire an understanding of the cultural norms in their society and build up a picture of how the world works. Except good doesn’t always triumph over bad, big romantic gestures don’t magically fix relationships and wishing on a star can’t make a person from a puppet. It turns out that narratives are not a great source of accurate, dispassionate fact. We ought to learn when stories bump up against contrary experiences that they often fail to reflect reality, yet the influence of some stories is difficult to shake. When I was a student for example my class discussed the “one true love” notion of romance that figures quite prominently in fiction. Despite virtually everyone recognising the fallacy of this idea both from experiential and logical perspectives, many were unable to resist its emotional appeal.

Narratives are not just mechanisms for distributing culture. Stories help us to make sense of our place in the world. This happens in the telling, reflecting on and retelling of many short stories about ourselves. The tone of the tale shifts depending of who you’re telling and how you feel. In the case of introspection the audience is yourself. The role of narrative in the construction and affirmation of identity is nowhere more clear than where there is a shift in identity. Take for example a religious transformation in a person. When an individual has undergone a religious change an historicising of the self often occurs. A person reflects upon their past and evidence is identified that affirms the transition that has taken place. These artefacts of their history are narrativised and become some of the many anchoring points in their changing identity. This is not to imply that there’s something synthesised or fake about about their identity. These are real events in a person’s life as interpreted by the person. What this sheds light on is that identity is not the sum of one’s experiences but is deeply connected to key points in one’s life. In other words, identity doesn’t necessarily relate the facts of a person’s experiences but the stories they tell communicate something about who they are at a point in time.

A good example of the role of narrative in religious identity can be found in a video interview of Richard Dawkins by Howard Conder for Revelation TV*. In the interview (29:25-41:43) Conder describes some key moments in his religious life that for him lend weight to his beliefs. As with any collective, religions have in-group narratives. Where a person aligns with and/or wishes to be accepted by a collective, they’ll deploy narratives that are consistent with the group. Conder’s anecdote includes themes around initial scepticsm, submitting to the will of God, experiencing physical manifestations of the spiritual, others witnessing immaterial phenomena and a miracle of someone rising from the dead. These are all themes that are consistent with his religion’s in-group narratives and hold credibility in that context. I’m not suggesting that Conder was lying about his experiences but rather that he had experiences in a religious context, that were interpreted through his understanding of his in-group’s religious narratives and he consequently attached special significance to these. In the same sense that alien abduction stories, ghost sightings or accounts of spirit channelling tell us something about the teller rather than something about the world, Conder’s story is about his beliefs.

What I’ve tried to convey very briefly is that narrative plays a significant role in distributing culture and constituting identity but is not a particularly accurate way of describing or explaining the world. Narratives have patterns and structures that are not necessarily a good match with the way things happen or work and are susceptible to nuance and emphasis. Even when we can see that a message conveyed through a narrative poorly reflects our experience we can be coerced by our feelings or our sense of belonging. Is it any wonder why some people feel under attack when religious claims are challenged if their identity is wrapped up with beliefs that underpin those claims? The more a person’s identity is anchored to experiences that are narrativised to give religious significance, the more the integrity of their personhood depends on the defence of their religion.

 

 

*I was hoping to link to the original video but was unfortunately unable to find it on the Revelation TV YouTube channel.

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Belief in Absence Vs Absence of Belief

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When encountering claims like “atheists believe x” or “an atheist would say y” I often find myself unable to resist the urge to add my view to the discussion. This generally involves pointing out that atheism is an absence of belief in gods. Responses vary from “you’re a God denier” to “believing there’s no God is the same as not believing God exists”. It seems that although I’m trying to be clear about my view of what an atheist is I could be clearer.

I’d like to start with two quite different definitions of the word “atheist”.

Merriam-Webster:

“…a person who believes there is no God.”

Oxford Dictionary:

“A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”

To some people these definitions are for all intents and purposes the same but they’re in fact quite distinct. One difference is the notion of lacking belief. I prefer the word “absence” over “lack” since “lacking” implies that something is missing, while “absence” conveys non-existence or non-location. Another difference is between notions of believing something negative and disbelieving something positive .

Let’s pretend that my mind is a basket and beliefs are objects. I might believe for example that things I drop will fall. I can represent this belief in gravity as an apple and place it in my basket. Then perhaps someone makes a claim that ghosts exist. This can be represented as a bed sheet and I’ll exclude it from my basket because I’m not convinced by their evidence, that’s to say I disbelieve their claim. I’m then told that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. I can represent this belief as a toy dinosaur and place it in my basket since I’m convinced by the suggestion that if we can find whales in an ocean we ought to be able to find Nessie in a lochSo in my basket (mind) I have an apple (gravity), a dinosaur (Nessie) but no bed sheet (ghosts). I believe in gravity, I believe the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist and I have no beliefs in ghosts existing. My holding a negative belief (Nessie doesn’t exist) is not the same as the absence of a positive belief (ghosts do exist). Likewise, the belief the gods don’t exist is not the same as the absence of beliefs that they do.

Merriam-Webster’s definition that an atheist is “…a person who believes there is no God” is an example of a negative belief. People who are atheists may hold negative beliefs about specific gods but this isn’t a function of their atheism. Atheism has no evaluative tools or framework that might be used to form a belief about gods. There is no atheist epistemology. We notice that Merriam-Webster capitalise the “G” in God so they’re referring to something by name rather than a class or category. Their use of the word “God” is in the singular so we’re dealing with the god of a monotheistic religion. The assumption of the inherent legitimacy of monotheism and the creation of a false binary of only being able to believe God does or doesn’t exist is glaringly obvious and dishonest. The Oxford Dictionary definition does a much better job but could be improved by substituting the word “lacks” and removing the superfluous word “God”. Monotheists are aware that there are other gods. The reason they refer to their god as “God” rather than by the god’s name (where it’s known) is a mixture of cultural normalisation, aversion to blasphemy and elevating their god above others. In the last sense saying “God” is a sort of shorthand for “the one true god”, which has no bearing on the meaning of the word “atheist”.

After thinking about belief of absence and absence of belief, and considering this distinction in relation to the two dictionary definitions above, the following is perhaps a clearer way for me to phrase my position on what atheism is:

Atheist: a person who has no affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.

Atheism: an absence of affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.

The descriptive power of the word “atheist”, like “theist”, “monotheist” or “polytheist”, is quite weak since it’s an encompassing word. It offers a way of expressing the absence of beliefs that are sometimes assumed to be present. It says nothing about how beliefs are constituted or by what means decisions about beliefs are reached. Yet it’s a useful word that deserves to be protected from being defined through a monotheistic lens.

 

 

 

 

The Immortal Soul

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The idea that the essence of a person is non-physical and survives the death of the body is a truly ancient one. Early conceptualisations of the soul included the idea that bodies contained a “breath of life”. Some viewed the soul as a force that enlivens and drives a body. What’s interesting about the problem of the soul in history is not so much that people have recognised this thing named “soul” and sought to describe it but rather have sought explanations for how human beings work and labelled various descriptions as “the soul.” It may be that questions about self-awareness, conscious thought and imagination have been answered with recourse to supernatural explanations in the absence of better accounts. The soul has become quite an influential idea. It’s a convenient means by which everything that makes you who you are can escape death. With the idea of an immortal soul we can envision life or lives after death and begin to construct a picture of where we go, what it’s like and what we need to do in life in order to get there.

If we take our definition of the soul to be “an immaterial part of a person that contains the essence of who they are and survives the death of the body”, what evidence is there to support a belief in it? Well, some people make bold claims on behalf of science, saying that there is evidence for the existence of the soul but these claims should probably be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. The fact is that if there was solid scientific evidence for the soul we would all know about it, it would be enormous news and the real world implications would be huge. The problem here is that we are looking at the soul as if it’s a thing with features like personality, memory and feelings rather than as an explanation for these things as they occur in human beings. Is your personality immaterial? Are your memories immortal? Can your feelings persist beyond death? Some people will claim yes to all of these, providing pretty dodgy evidence if any. Yet we know that chemical changes in the body can alter mood, personality and the ability to access and create memories. Anyone who has known a loved one suffering dementia will be aware of how damage to the brain can fundamentally alter personality and recollection. Unfortunates who have suffered acquired brain injuries have permanently lost aspects of who they were. The immortal soul is simply not a very good explanation. Who we are is very much physical and far from immortal.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that what we believe matters because our beliefs have real world implications. In the case of the soul the consequence can be a devaluing of the body and a devaluing of life. Some people might be less inclined to sacrifice themselves for religious or political reasons if it were not for their belief in an immortal soul. It makes it easier to stomach human suffering and profound inequality without taking direct tangible action if you can believe it’s just a temporary part of an immortal existence. Some find solace in the idea that they will be reunited with loved ones when they die or at least that their loved ones persist. In a sense it feels like a harmless idea that because it brings comfort shouldn’t be contradicted. I’m not convinced that it is harmless though. It slots in with other unfounded beliefs and explanations of the world and can act as a cornerstone that props these beliefs up. For example I’ve known several people who genuinely believed that humans can be possessed by spirits or demons. Others I’ve known believed that the soul can become detached from their body and lost. For some the soul is a means by which people can carry their culpability beyond death. It’s a belief that can give people a feeling that justice cannot be escaped. It’s also a means by which our behaviour and expectations can be influenced. If you happen to believe that your essence will escape death then you might want some assurances about how you’ll be spending eternity and there are plenty who are willing to provide conditional assurances.

We need to recognise that the concept of an immortal soul is an outdated attempt to understand and describe difficult human features like personality, imagination and memory. The soul is a wrong answer where much better answers are available. Accepting that we are all physical, fragile and vulnerable should broaden our compassion. Proceeding on the basis that we probably don’t persist beyond death should cause us to value life. Rather than believing that wrongs will be righted in the here-after, let’s take responsibility for righting them in the here and now.

Reflecting on Believing

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“I can believe whatever I want.”

While this may be true to some degree, it probably feels truer than it really is. There are things that are so at odds with our understanding of the world that you would reject them without thinking, although they may be technically believable. There are propositions that clash with many of your already dearly held beliefs so that to believe them would prove extremely difficult. Some beliefs might clash with others you hold but can coexist so long as they aren’t considered too deeply or forced to brush up against each other too frequently. Some may be deeply considered and supplant previously held beliefs. Others slot in naturally and compliment your existing beliefs. You might not even realise you acquired them. So perhaps we can’t choose what to believe in all cases but we can certainly exercise some agency. We have the ability to identify and reflect critically on our beliefs and decide if they are useful and reasonable.

“What I believe doesn’t matter to anyone else, it’s my business. You believe what you want and I’ll believe what I want.”

We should be free to evaluate propositions to see if we believe them and we aught to be able to ask questions in an environment that is free from coercion. That said, your beliefs hold real world consequences, not just for you but for others around you too. Beliefs can be powerful and life-determining. I’m reminded of Yeonmi Park who fled North Korea. Even in the safety of South Korea she wouldn’t allow herself to think negative thoughts of the North Korean regime because she believed that Kim Jong-un could read her mind and would punish her. What you believe impacts on the decisions you make and how you behave. If you believe for example that the combined MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine could give your children autism then you might decide not to vaccinate them. If there is a significant causal link between MMR and autism (there isn’t) you may have lowered their risk of having autism but not diminished their risk of having some pretty nasty illnesses. If enough people believe in the vaccine/autism link then conditions are ripe for an epidemic. There is a difficult balance to be struck between freedom to believe as we wish and challenging beliefs that are potentially harmful.

“We may not all believe the same things but you should respect my beliefs.”

This begs the question, why? Generally the word “respect” is used to mean “admire” or “honour” and I wonder if those expressing this opinion genuinely reciprocate. I think we should be respectful of people and respect ideas/beliefs that merit our respect but we should not expect any particular beliefs to be respected automatically. This should be true of all beliefs including those that are religious or about the supernatural more generally. Problems can emerge however while evaluating each other’s beliefs that can cause dialogue to shut down. For example, asymmetries in what people consider to be persuasive evidence can make discussion around beliefs very challenging. Let’s say I was involved in an air traffic accident and as a result I believe that air travel is so dangerous it should be banned. You could show me all the statistics in the world about how safe air travel is compared to travelling by car but in my mind the emotional weight of my experience will trump the stats. Some beliefs are more intertwined with our identity than others and the more those beliefs feel like a part of who we are the more any questioning of them feels like a personal attack. The answer to these challenges may be to find common ground where we’re able to agree on standards of evidence and build trust so that we are comfortable with asking each other questions. I think if I felt uncomfortable with any of my beliefs being earnestly and politely questioned, I would take it as a red flag, as a sign that I need to consider this belief more closely.

Free Will by Sam Harris

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The idea that humans have free will figures quite prominently in philosophical, psychological and religious thought. Free will is sometimes provided as an answer to why people do things that are considered evil or bad. We choose to commit a crime as much as we choose to help someone in need. We understand that one person’s free will can impinge on another’s and that the time and place of your birth has a massive impact on your freedom to exercise your will. Our self-determination, albeit within the constraints of our environment, makes us personally responsible for our actions and their consequences, in the eyes of most people. However, this only seems to be the case once we reach a crucial point in childhood. We aren’t born responsible or with free will. If a young child breaks something in a shop, the parent takes responsibility even if the child intended to break the item and the parent has no direct control over the child’s actions. Is the point at which we become personally responsible the same as when we can control our impulses, understand the consequences of our behaviour and develop an awareness of how others view us? Is it the acquisition of “knowledge of good and evil”, the understanding of what it means to be a good or bad member of society, that imbues us with free will and makes us responsible for ourselves?

A few weeks ago I read a book (pamphlet!) by Sam Harris on the topic of free will. The main claim of the book is that free will is an illusion. People are the product of biology, environment and experiences, none of which are authored by the individual. We don’t choose where or when we will be born.The breadth and variety in the curriculum of our educational system, if we have access to one at all, is essentially beyond our control while we are in it. We have no say over the quality of our upbringing or what is valued by our culture. Harris argues that consciousness furnishes us with an illusion of free will. We feel that we are making decisions, weighing options and acting accordingly but where does our intentionality come from? If I normally drink coffee in the morning but one day decide to have tea because I fancy it, what motivated that decision? Do you decide what you’ll think before you think it? Harris points to processes that operate below the level of consciousness but argues that even if you view the mind and body as separate and believe that your intentionality is motivated by your soul, you still have no insight into that preconscious decision making. If you are making finalised decisions before they reach your consciousness, in what sense are you able to exercise free will?

The book raises some interesting points particularly around the degree to which we are responsible for our actions. If an animal attacks a person we don’t usually blame the animal. It is the intent of a person that warrants blame and the more free they were to choose an alternate course, the more blameworthy they are. Harris argues that in the example of a killer, mitigating factors such as the circumstances, upbringing or wellness mediates how accountable we judge a person to be. If someone who is otherwise a good person commits a crime because a brain tumour has had a personality-altering effect on them, we would probably not blame them, we would want to help them. If, as Harris suggests, our intentionality is not something we consciously control, then are we really responsible for our behaviour? Should transgressors be punished or reformed?

I’m willing to travel quite a long way with the arguments Harris puts forward about free will but I’m still not sold on the idea that free will is an illusion. There are certainly constrains – environmental, biological, psychological, cultural and societal – on our free will and it may be that we feel freer than we really are but could free will really be an illusion? The reason I’m skeptical is that Harris only seems to consider scenarios that support his contention. He appears to suggest that free will should be a purely conscious activity and that intention-oriented behaviour is unidirectional:

unconscious decision > awareness > action

I suspect the reality is more complex. Consider this scenario: I’m watching television and a family member switches it off. Some unconscious processing takes place, my mood changes, I’m angry and I realise that I am going to insult them. I’m aware of my cultural and social norms and have a model for intentionally transgressing in this specific way. I turn to open my mouth and see they are upset. My mood changes, some subconscious processing takes place, I realise that insulting is the wrong action for this context. I might rapidly visualise the consequence of my insult. I manage to snatch back the words before they can leave my mouth and instead ask “what’s wrong?”. There are elements of this scenario that happen fast like shifts in emotion and interpreting facial expressions. Some that might happen a little slower like selecting and retrieving response models and visualisation. There are rapid back and forths between different brain functions, some of which may be available consciously and others not. There’s also a thread of intentionality that is subject to conscious and unconscious influence. My point is that we can recognise that people are not completely free to do as they wish and they may not be fully aware of their limitations but they still have and exercise agency.