Materialism, Kissing, and the Purpose of Life

Excerpt taken from an article written by the character Will Vernik in spiritual fiction, Now and at the Hour of Our Death. The spoilers have been omitted.

Modern science tells us that all human emotion and all human action and psychology can be reduced to basic mechanical processes. McKenzie’s inspiration wasn’t a message from God, just a brain mixing up its contents to form something new; Marcus gets depressed because of a chemical imbalance in his brain; and the feelings Sue has toward that charming young man next to her are a result of hormones and biochemical reactions. When you feel your heart expanding or breaking, it’s simply due to the mechanical reactions from the environment around you. There is no magic in these processes—nothing unusual—and there is definitely not anything supernatural involved. Life is, as Shakespeare had Macbeth lament, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

For the longest time I used to think there was magic involved in everyday occurrences. I used to believe that something supernatural played an important role in our lives and you could tap into that supernatural reality and will things into existence or even change the heart of someone you loved. I was wrong.

Or was I?

Science is good at explaining how lightning happens or how the planets revolve around the Sun or how to fling infinitesimally small particles up to near light speed and watch them collide. But science is phenomenally bad and completely impotent when trying to explain human behavior, whether through social sciences or psychology. Simply put, treating humans like a collection of atoms, molecules, and cells fails miserably and when scientists try, they end up looking pretty ridiculous. As Durant wrote, “How often our instincts and feelings push aside little syllogisms that would like us to behave like geometric figures and make love with mathematical precision.” Humans are not geometric figures or complex mathematical equations, and that bears out in the data. Doctoral psychologists are no better at predicting human behavior than laypeople, and studies have shown that a placebo is as effective at treating some psychological conditions as popular pharmaceuticals that chemists took decades and billions of dollars to develop. Science can’t explain dreaming or predict love and, most importantly, they can’t even come close to explaining why someone would lay down his life in order to save others.

What are these scientists and psychologists missing as they try to understand these phenomena? They’re missing the spirit, the immaterial, the soul. In essence, they’re missing the entire point to human existence.

A kiss isn't just "two sets of mandibles moving against each other for a certain duration, sometimes exchanging expectorate."

A kiss isn’t just “two sets of mandibles moving against each other for a certain duration, sometimes exchanging expectorate.”

Spirit is a complex concept, but it can be reduced to the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For instance, a single molecule of gas has no temperature, but when you combine it with other molecules of gas, voila, you have temperature. A cloud is a bunch of water molecules mixed with gases, but it’s more than that; it has temperature and color and sometimes looks like fluffy animals. It has an immaterial component—a spirit. Similarly, the human being is more than just the sum of its constituent parts. The brain, for instance, consists of billions of neurons, but it would be nonsensical to say that one of those neurons has an IQ of 140. When combined with others though in the context of a human brain, it suddenly has intelligence. A kiss isn’t “two sets of mandibles moving against each other for a certain duration, sometimes exchanging expectorate.” No, a kiss is soaring over snow-capped mountain peaks and plunging into a glowing sea of scintillation. That’s spirit.

The more complex the organism, the more sophisticated the spirit, and the highest level of spirit on Earth is free will. If humans were just material automatons, their actions would be completely predictable as mechanical reactions to material stimulus. But reality shows the opposite; humans are extremely unpredictable and it seems the more you know about people, the less you can predict their behavior, which makes planning social events a nightmare but is essential to why sports are so entertaining (who would watch a basketball game if the best team always won?). This human unpredictability is a result of free will—the ability to choose to do one thing over the other, independent of certain stimulus.

meme-highestEach choice we make is an exercise of free will, but some choices are easier to make than others. For instance, there are base desires luring us to sensual pleasures and corporate advertisers facilitating those desires toward unhealthy fried foods and sexy sunglasses; science and government tell us to eat this and not to park there; and if we’re lucky enough we have loved ones nagging us about our less palatable behaviors. Emotion, evidence, and spouses can all compel one to make a specific choice, but believing in something without any of those influences is the freest choice that we have and it’s called faith. The most purely free decision one can make—and thus, the highest order of spirit on Earth—is believing in something without evidential knowledge. Nietzsche was wrong. The highest goal for humanity isn’t to become automatons. The highest goal for humanity is freedom of belief.

Of course, belief isn’t always necessarily good. Someone can believe something with all the passion in the world, but if it’s based on a false premise, things can go staggeringly wrong. You can convince yourself that you’re going to fly when you jump off a building, but that belief isn’t going to help you much when you’re accelerating to the concrete sidewalk at 9.82 m/s2. You can believe a president when he tells you we need to go to war or a doctor when he tells you you need a harmful drug. And you can believe in all your heart that a particular girl is the one, but that won’t help the state of your heart when she breaks it over and over again. Belief is a very powerful tool, but it can lead to good or evil.

After all, terrorists who kill themselves as they kill others believe they’re doing the right thing. Those people think they are obeying the wishes of their god but as crazy as that sounds, that’s not too different from everyone else on this planet because everyone has a god, even atheists. Some people’s god is science and they religiously obey the dictates of the scientific community even in the face of common sense. For others, politicians are their god, and they think that the imperfect nature of humans somehow doesn’t apply to government officials. Others put their faith in pharmaceutical corporations who promise to help them when the opposite is disastrously evident. Everyone has some indefensible supernatural belief. The goal, then, is to make sure you have the right indefensible supernatural belief because belief can help you do amazing things, but it can’t change the truth. Belief isn’t what’s wrong in the world; belief in the wrong thing is.

But what is the right thing, you ask? Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you and even if I could, you wouldn’t listen. Like everyone, you have to experience it yourself. You have to say the wrong thing yourself, take the wrong pill yourself, and fall in love with the wrong person yourself. That’s life. It’s a series of knock-down, drag-out fights with yourself and others that will leave you lying on the ground bruised and bloody and drooling all over your shag carpeting. But all that doesn’t define you—your reaction to it does. Your environment doesn’t make you who you are—your choices—your beliefs—do. Because life isn’t just a series of random collisions with massive collections of atoms and parts; it’s not just sound and fury signifying nothing. Life is a test of the spirit; it is a test of the will; and it is a test of belief. You can let the seemingly inconsequential material desolation erode your soul or you can decide to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and believe that there’s something better. The choice to believe is yours. It’s the only thing that truly is.

cover_m_nhd-200x300Excerpt taken from the novel: Now and at the Hour of Our Death.

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