Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Metaphors and Experience

25 Sep, 2009 | Brian

I really do intend to finish up with Pascal's Wager, but right now I want to take a look at drawing unnecessary conclusions. I do not know quite what to call it. It's definitely a failure of logic - kind of like affirming the consequent but kind of not. The specific example I am thinking of is an atheist who says that religion is valueless. Given that (A) an atheist finds no fact in the existence of God, it follows that (B) religion is not based on fact. This is so far consistent. It breaks down when this hypothetical fellow goes on to assert that (C) religious practice - and spirituality generally - has no value.

We do not really value things on whether they are factual. For example, I am in the middle of a terrible novel. I mean, the writing, the plot, and the characterization are awful. It also takes place in an impossible future time and includes impossible activities. There is no factual basis for this story, no human insight to be gained, and no moral lesson (in fact my moral quality is likely to be worse off after I'm done with this book). And yet I enjoy reading it. Somehow I rescue positive value from the experience. Maybe it's just the peace of mind I get from relaxation.

Why should that be the case? Why didn't I stop reading this book as soon as I realized it couldn't possibly be an accurate, fact-based account of events? Frankly, I knew that before I bought it. It was in the science fiction section. There were a lot of other books there, from which I infer many people purchase and read science fiction books (otherwise the store wouldn't stock them). We all willingly go in for a tale we know in advance is completely made up, and we enjoy it nontheless.

I suppose we might all be deranged. Somehow I don't buy that. I often read stories to my kids, and they also know full well that the stories are not about real people or real events. They have never seen an actual talking rabbit, and they're aware you cannot dig through a mountain with just your hands. Getting away from books: the popularity of prime-time television should be evidence enough that people don't care if stories are rooted in actuality or not.

Now, I don't want to draw parallels between whole-cloth fantasy and religion. I'm just saying that we find value in things that aren't based on facts, and whether you believe a religion is fact-based has no bearing on the value of participating in it. Partly this is because even though there is a fact-based universe around us, our experience of living out a human life is somewhat separated from that. Everyone has decoupled conversations in their heads. We run through scenarios of what could happen if we confront a certain person, or turn down an award, or mess up the quarterly presentation. None of those scenarios are real, but we do experience them, and have real reactions from them, and take real actions in the real world based on the original imaginary scenario.

Human experience is a complicated thing. Who cares if religion is factual? It doesn't matter. All that matters is your experience of it, which has value all its own. Maybe I am motivated to be more mindful of suffering, and take actions to reduce it. That is value. Maybe I am motivated to let go of a resentment. Maybe I am reminded that I am not in control of the world, and shouldn't try to be. Those are valuable outcomes. Is it possible to have those experiences without religion? Certainly! But that doesn't devalue the experience of someone who does.