Thursday, February 15, 2007

Death and Religion

“But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hopes.”
H. Melvillle, “The Chapel”, Moby Dick

Not surprisingly, I have been thinking a lot on death. As it happens, I have been thinking, also, on the effects of death on my head. As a result of this, I have come up with a story. It is about religion. I have come to think that, among rational beings capable of meta-cognition, death goes very naturally with religion. There are some other ‘natural’ stories of religion at the market nowadays. Some of them adjudicate religion to human stupidity. My story is far away from this. According to my story, we should adjudicate religion to biological or evolutionary stupidity.

The story goes like this. Suppose that to have beliefs and desires somehow pays off in evolutionary terms. Suppose, further on, that this is owed to the fact that such beings are capable of theorizing about their environment. The cat ‘knows’ where the milk is, and the shark ‘knows’ when and where to attack. Suppose further on that there’s a mutant with second order cognitive capacities. Its mental states are not only linearly related but also hierarchically so. This animal not only has theories, it also knows that it has theories, and so the game begins.

Now, there’s an important link missing here. How is metacognition supposed to be of any advantage over cognition? Let me throw in another explanandum that I won’t dare to justify: love. This is another evolutionary engine. Love makes it possible for X’s theory of the environment to be communicated, taught, and even improved when received by Y. It is fun to individually come up with theories of different sorts. Theory making and story-telling are on a par here. But we would never get good theories, nor any biological payoff out of theorizing, if theories were lost with their inventors. Human-like-meta-cognitive rationality would be useless without the possibility of communicating, through generations, its achievements. This is what loves does. We learn theories, and how to theorize, at home, with our family. And it clearly breaks down into big developmental handicaps when there’s no such love. A loveless human is literally an incomplete human. So, this is the need: for things to work out well (biologically) humans had to develop a strong social connection, a bond strong enough to help the species survive throw individual-theory-making means.

But, as Hölderlin forgot to say, where the cure is there is the sickness. This is how we get to our big biological stupidity. The love-bond is so strong that when it disappears everything drains down the sewage. For the individual nothing makes sense anymore. The only way to keep going on is to find a way to keep the bond. The dead must somehow be revived. To believe in a transcending stage, where the formerly living ones are ‘still’ alive, makes a lot of sense. The survivors of the love-accident must (a biological must here) believe that the departed are still around. If we were not to love ‘so’ much, we would not need faith so much. But then again, if we were not to love ‘so’ much we would have probably already disappeared from this incredibly short story.

So far as I can see, there is a biological cause of faith. It’s just the necessary balm for life-related wounds. Some develop this faith under the label of ‘religion’. Others do so under different labels: ‘literature’, ‘philosophy’, and ‘science’ are among them. For once we theorize to celebrate life. But later, when the time comes, we keep on theorizing to celebrate death, and our long-celebrated cadavers of yore. So we not only get religions, but also traditions, habits, and cultures.

We love our dead because we live to love. And we will do anything, come up with any story, to keep our dead among us. And so, as Melville rightly says, death is “a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity.”