|St. Dymphna, patroness of mental illness|
Many modern philosophers such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Dan Barker are spending time focusing on free will and if it is something we can speak to as a reality or if life is completely deterministic. Dan Barker has recently written a book that I am interested in reading called "Free Will Explained." In it he seeks to argue that free will and determinism are not opposed but two separate understandings of reality we live in. If I understand him correctly, he says there is no free will on a scientific level, but that free will emerges out of our social reality we live in.
I find this concept extremely intriguing in regards to my quest for understanding mental health and it's relationship to religion. As I see it now, Religion seems to be a construct created by the mind in order to make sense out of our chaotic world. In that sense, it can provide relief to a trouble mind. Popular religious cliches reveal this: there is a reason for everything, God works in mysterious ways, the redemptive value of suffering. The problem is when our perceptions about reality cause us to make incorrect and harmful conclusions.
Some comparisons I can make are to language, music, marriage, visual perceptions, government and others. I will spend a little time contemplating on these ideas and their structure and how they compare to religion.
Starting with language, I speak Italian and Spanish moderately well and have spent some time studying ASL, Korean and Croatian. It is amazing to me how languages are formed and the similarities between them. I have spent the past year teaching English as a Second Language and it has forced me to analyse the constructs of language and to understand it on a more pragmatic level. I spent over 5 years taking Spanish in school. In the end, I could barely use the language, but when I moved to Italy in 2003, I spent day and night immersed in Italian. I learned to speak Italian on a functional level within about 3 months or 4 months. Something clicked for me in understanding languages that I had never understood before. Using the language in a functional, practical everyday way engaged my mind to
appreciate another language as a bridge to relate to someone else and not some structure to learn. I relate it to learning medicine as a science or as tool to heal your mother. Most people do not consider the parameters and legalistic functions of language when they use it. They just use it. But the rules are there. They are necessary to make sense of whatever language is used for.
Our brains are wired to connect to others and survive.
Music is another concept that I find intriguing. There are the scientific properties to explain the notes, the sounds, harmony, and theory, but when we hear a song that "strikes a chord" in our "soul" so to speak, we don't need extensive musical understanding for it to have it's effects on our mind and emotions. I play guitar and sing and write my own music. I am not a great musician, but I can use it as a tool to communicate lived experiences within me. Others are able to relate to it at times and it is a special experience that I am so grateful to be able to have. If I were to practice more, I am sure my music could be better quality. But, even with the most technical education, some are not able to compose their own music. Music is a construct we have created to sooth our turmoils and communicate with others.
Marriage and other social constructs, I propose, are systematic structures to give order and meaning to
the volatile situations of human interaction. Religion looks at marriage as a supernatural bond between individuals. Pop culture can look at it as some sort of mystifying love connection that transcends natural understanding. But, when we examine closer, we can see biological, sociological and psychological reasons for these "feelings" we have and significance we give to these social structures. The lived experience of these relationships do transcend the components as the experience of listening to music transcends the notes. I find it interesting that for me the loss of my marriage and the loss of my faith had very similar impacts on my life. My security in the world and paradigm was damaged and I had to break down the meaning of my life and understanding of values I hold on in order to move forward. It is still a constant struggle and effort. What I am saying is that we make these ideas and mental constructs and superimpose them on the world and it can be devastating when we realize that there is not much reality behind them beyond what we give.
Visual perception is so intriguing for understanding how what we experience can be made up of objective reality and illusion. There are a few good presentations online that can explain all of this better than I can. I will try to link a few at the bottom. But the basic idea that I am calling upon here is that colors, shapes, depth, and so many other properties are perceptions of our external reality. It's how our brains interpret what is there, it is not necessarily accurate. Our enjoyment or repulsion of these things are not necessarily determiners of their intrinsic value or composition or reality.
I could go on comparing governments and laws and such. But, the idea is basically they are structures humanity finds to make sense of the world and to function in a meaningful way.
All of the concepts go back to Religion for me. Why is spirituality so powerful? Why is something that cannot be proven and has so many variations throughout the world still have such a potent influence on our lives? I listened to an interesting (even if I think erroneous) talk on depression and spiritual awakening. The doctor giving the talk says there is scientific proof that spiritual people who embrace suffering as a spiritual awakening have an increase of positive brain structures. If this is scientific and provable it seems to point to the conclusion that spirituality is evolutionary and possibly a coping skill for interpreting the meaning of life. I do not think it points to the truthfulness of religious claims, but to the truthfulness that religion is used by our brain to understand the world. Similar to how our experiences of the beauty of colors and landscapes bare no truth to there being some creator or actual objective goodness or badness of these things. We use our perception to interpret these things to our benefit. Another example is our enjoyment of sugar and salt bare no significance to the object goodness or evil of these substances, but that our taste sensors have developed to interpret these things as benefits and harms to our physical bodies.
“I call him religious who understands the suffering of others."
― Mahatma Gandhi