This week I was trying to remember just what chemical process in the brain can block the uptake of the pleasurable impulses that are the fuel of a happy life (I’d read about this in a book a few weeks ago). Even though I couldn’t recall all the proper names and details, I knew there was a materialistic explanation for my slightly depressed mood this week. I also knew it was bloody unlikely I would ever really discover what it was.
We now know that we humans are chemical, electrical, walking, talking biological systems that are affected by organisms we can’t see (with our unaided eyes), our genes, the foods we eat and the daily social occurrences of our lives. In short, we’re complicated critters: complex life forms, bubbling cauldrons of genes, bacteria, cells, fluids and electrical signals.
All of this we’ve learned, of course, from science. There are those, I know, who argue that science, for all of it’s knowledge, cannot fill the role of religion (or even philosophy, for that matter). (The role they speak of in this context tends to be one of consolation — an assurance of meaning).
The further I evolve in my own thinking (and scientific knowledge), the less sense that very idea makes to me. I mean, is that sort of comfort or consolation really something we require? Or is it more a sort of neurotic need of our evolved human (primate/mammalian) brain?
Of course I think that question answers itself in the way I’ve proposed it.
An Oklahoma school kid left this note at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, clearly not taking too kindly to the challenge that science can present to religious belief.
Belief is a “need” of our human brain. Or, at least, our capacity for belief is most definitely wired into our circuitry. As NYU Psychology Professor Gary Marcus describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” (reviewed on this blog), the human mind has evolved to process information in a certain “believe first, ask questions later” way that makes us gullible creatures that must work at being otherwise. So when it comes to our much-vaunted capacity for reason, Marcus says: “Rationality, pretty much by definition, demands a thorough and judicious balancing of evidence, but the circuitry of mammalian memory simply isn’t attuned to that purpose.”
Rationalist that I am, then, I am not immune to the limitations of my own mammalian mind.
So as I found myself this week showing some telltale signs of mild depression, my mind immediately starting going through a list of possible “reasons”: Post-holiday malaise, something I ate (or some other natural cause I may not be able to ascertain with the resources at hand), etc. But then (tagging along like scruffy cheats trying to sneak into the show without paying for a ticket) came the old chestnuts of irrational belief: that it was a moment of personal growth, that I was somehow on a wrong path in my life, or that I was being “taught a lesson” etc, etc.
Damn, those little guys are persistent!
Fortunately such thoughts have grown noticeably weaker (and thereby more comical) of late, but the fact that I still had such “leftover” thoughts at all serves as a corollary (cognitive) example to the leftover marks of our physical evolution, and therefore tells the tale of my intellectual evolution over the years. But as to their “meaning”, well, it means only this: that I have a brain that stores memory in a contextual framework such that when the context of feeling “blue” was called up, the little be-speckled electrochemical librarians in my brain started sending up any idea, fact or experience that was ever connected to similar past experiences of feeling “down”.
Now the reason I was calling upon this faculty in my brain was simple: I wanted to repair it (and also keep it from becoming worse), and feel better.
The reality is that it is probably a transitory state (it did, in fact, begin to lift as I was writing this sermon), and that I would most likely never know its actual “cause”. (If I were in a futuristic science fiction film, a simple scan would show what chemicals were off and I’d get the right shot/pill/therapeutic treatment). So while there is most assuredly a cause, there is no “reason” (in the sense of it having a larger “meaning”), It simply “is”, due to whatever biochemical processes ginned it up. There is no other “meaning” to it.
For purposes of clarity, I should insert here that to me “cause” equals “reason”, and adds up to the totality of “meaning” or “purpose”. I find it a bit maddening when believers continue to insist that there is more in the equation to be filled in beyond that formulation. (I can’t help but think of that stage of childhood development that makes every kid follow every answer with “why?”). So someone might ask me: “Okay, we evolved, but why?”. In answer to which I describe the process as it is currently understood (which to me satisfies the “cause/reason/meaning” equation by providing all of the information that there is to be known at this stage), which is then answered with “Okay, but why?” As if there just has to be a higher purpose behind things (a view whose absurdity is attenuated only by the ubiquity of its adherents).
But back to the “blues”. Because I have a lot of life experience with depression that came mostly during the years when I believed in God (or later in my “therapy” and then “psychic” years), it makes sense that the mix of diagnosis and treatments on offer from my stored memory would be similarly medieval and primitive. The mind is like an old attic, where the past crowds the present.
These days I’ve gotten good at doing quick personal inventories, checking my other systems for proper functioning: Diet: good. Exercise: good. Physical symptoms: none. Creativity: functioning perfectly. Sleep: Normal. Relationships: Good. For whatever reason, the part of my brain that works my pleasure system is running a bit behind. Not badly behind, but worth noting.
In a way it’s like when seasonal allergies hit: at first I feel tired, maybe like a cold is coming on. I might take a nap, take it easy for a day. But once I realize it’s just the damn allergies, and that I’m going to feel a bit sluggish for a few weeks whether I take a nap or not, I just have to take a deep breath, and work around it. (And though a check of an allergy website or the newspaper can confirm that the local pollen count is high, I still won’t know exactly what’s making me sniffle).
I take it as kind of a exploratory adventure to step forward into life without the usual comforts of belief and meaning (or belief in meaning). There are times it is uncomfortable, perhaps in no small measure because there is little in the way of example out there for how a human should live a life sans irrational beliefs (and also because I’m working against certain inherited limitations of my monkey brain).
As I move forward on this path, I find myself increasingly sympathetic (and therefore less judgmental) of those that choose a level of belief from the menu offered by our natural irrationality, even as I grow more comfortable and confident in my own choices. It doesn’t mean that my path is the most enjoyable (in fact, I’ve begun to think it a much harder sell to the general public than I once did), but it does carry with it a certain satisfaction.
And though I’ve said this before, probably the most remarkable thing about leaving belief behind is just how little it changes about life. For stripping away one’s illusions about something is a subtractive process that subtracts only the things we imagined to be there, but leaves unchanged (and unfiltered) the thing about which we created the illusions in the first place. (So I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that abandoning belief had so little effect on, say, the motions of the sun and moon.)
So much of the sales pitch for irrational belief is that it makes life better, easier, more meaningful. But of course it does no such thing, really. What it gives us (in the more extreme case) is the opportunity to attempt to limit our awareness to a small bubble of illusion which is, frankly, difficult to do (it’s pretty much impossible to keep our naturally wide-ranging curious-monkey brains confined to such small ideological spaces — though many bravely try!).
Animals get depressed sometimes. And if I — a man who has figured out how to be happy the other 50 weeks of the year — am a little less so for some unknown (but perfectly “natural”) reason the other two, I can live with that…even without knowing “why”.