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Why do we as human beings seek meaning?

All other animals in this world have not displayed any dependence or effort in seeking meaning in their lives, for example, we don’t see any intelligent animals making shrines etc, homages to their god, etc. However humans, just 1 species on this globe does. Its so odd. I assume the answer to this question would be that we are just so intelligent? But I don’t know if that answer satisfies me.

Why is it that almost every culture and civilization has some form of god or religion. Why does every human being seek meaning? Is it possible that human beings could have come about without seeking meaning?

Posted: October 19th 2010

Blaise www

Simply put, we seek meaning because it’s a useful survival trait. As an example, if our tree-dwelling ancestors heard a branch rustle nearby, nine times out of ten they could safely ignore it. The other time, it was a large cat/snake/etc. about to eat them, and they died.

When by accident one of them developed the habit of deciding that a rustle had to be caused by “something”, that individual had an advantage. Sure, he wasted a second looking for the cause every time there was a rustle, but on that tenth time, he had a chance to escape, while his brethren died.

That trait wouldn’t go away unless natural selection weeded it out, and since it was useful for the majority of our pre-sentient evolution, that wasn’t very likely. Therefore, it is still with us. The problem is that our brains, now hard-wired to look for the assumed mind behind every event and object in our environment, keep looking even after that initial survey turns up no predator.

We have a bug….

Posted: October 20th 2010

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SmartLX www

We humans really are so far beyond the cognitive powers of the next most intelligent animal (possibly orangutans, almost certainly some closely related ape) that it’s not surprising that certain intellectual endeavours are unique to us.

Besides that, seeking meaning in one’s life is something of a leisurely pursuit. It’s something you only tend to do when you’re not busy ensuring your own survival and that of your loved ones. There are very few animal species in the world whose environments or communities allow them a more or less comfortable and secure existence, and of those we’re the only animals with the scope to realise this fact. The rest of the secure animals are our pets, and they’re glad and relieved to see their masters every single day.

Ascribing the unexplained to gods is the common result of a very attractive form of over-generalisation. Within our own immediate surroundings, everything really has been done for a reason. Someone built your bed, someone farmed your apples, someone consciously decided to give birth to you. Intelligent action is responsible for everything, it seems to us.

We’re then tempted to extend that thinking beyond the sphere of human influence, to things humans couldn’t possibly have brought about. We get over that little hump by positing a super-human entity who can do what we can’t, i.e. a god. This idea solves any philosophical problem it’s applied to, as long as explaining the god itself isn’t regarded as part of the problem. Once the idea has taken hold, it actively works to sustain itself through organised religion. That’s why “almost every culture and civilization has some form of god or religion”: the idea occurs very easily, and it’s then difficult to dismiss.

Nowadays we have new ways of seeking meaning, principal among them the scientific method. The difference is that the questions it answers begin with “how” instead of “why”. This is a step forward, because “why” assumes intelligent agency right off the bat when there may be none. As science explains more and more, gods are needed to explain less and less.

Yes, human beings are hard-wired to seek meaning, and we’re all glad of that. There’s more than one way to go about this, and our global community now has an opportunity to see which way serves us best.

Posted: October 20th 2010

See all questions answered by SmartLX

logicel

You will find an excellent description of why humans cognitively embrace gods so readily in this lecture by Andy Thompson titled Why Do We Believe in Gods?

It is nearly an hour in running and is worth your time.

En bref, evolution shaped us to be problem-solving meat machines, favoring various nifty cognitive functions that religious beliefs can masterfully hijack.

Posted: October 19th 2010

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Mike the Infidel www

As with so many things, the only answer we can give with any certainty is “we don’t quite know.”

Perhaps we seek meaning because our brains evolved to interpret events as being purposeful. In evolutionary terms, it’s a much more helpful shortcut to infer purpose in potential threats that we observe than to consider them as purposeless and possibly expose ourselves to danger. For example, it may have been useful for early humans to think that fire intended to burn us and thus to infer that it always would, rather than think that fire had no purpose or intent and might occasionally not burn us.

If you keep this instinctive assignment of purpose and add on a brain capable of self-reflection and consideration of the future (which evolved for separate but possibly related reasons), you may end up with a species that seeks to assign purpose to its own existence. This would explain why god beliefs and other superstitions (such as the “fire intends to burn us” idea) are spread throughout humanity: such an instinct would likely come along well before we diverged enough to the point that we were forming separate societies.

All this is purely hypothetical, of course, and may well be nothing more than a “just-so story”. The honest answer is, again, “we’re not sure.” But we’re working on it, rather than assuming that our instincts were given to us by a being whose existence can only be asserted.

Posted: October 19th 2010

See all questions answered by Mike the Infidel

 

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