Any Port In A Storm?

This is about the fictional world views that many humans embrace, and how they need, seek and find validation to feel existentially whole without the solace of axiomatic knowledge and rational thought.

The universe is a really big and complex place, bigger and more complex than we humans are capable of grasping intuitively. An uneducated human might figure out how to get through their day, feed themselves, and eventually mate if they are lucky. That’s what evolution has given us. But we also evolved to think and speak, and we can record things we learn and grow a body of knowledge. We can educate ourselves with the accumulated knowledge of others. Being conceptual critters, some of us have figured out clever ways to see beyond intuition into realms of the universe not readily apparent to the uneducated human. Some humans, through history, have figured out things about the universe that were not within the grasp of earlier humans, or even of their contemporaries, and, fortunately for us they recorded what they found so we can learn and know it too.

Still, not everyone gets to see all of what other humans have discovered. Some don’t have access to knowledge, which is a shame. Some don’t have the time to learn, which is also a shame. And some don’t have the ability, which is a reality. Most of us can get through our days without constant introspection into our own nature, but to some extent we all need to trust that we are right about our view of the world. Such is the nature of sentience that if you have it, you want to know it’s real. Having sentience without solid truths on which to hang one’s thoughts is an existential nightmare, so it’s understandable that many humans latch onto useful fictions to get them through their day. Evolution doesn’t strive for perfection or truth, only to survive to the next generation. And so the world views of humans need not be truthful; they need only be useful. For many humans, perhaps most, clinging to a useful fiction to describe their existence and their experience suffices. Any port in a storm.

Many humans get by with just their intuition, plus the mostly fictional folk tales they have inherited, and often with the encouragement of people who make a living assuaging the imaginations of the under-educated. There is an entire profession who profits from supporting the superstitious intuitions of the under-educated and the ineducable. Humans who cling to the fictions they inherited still have the pangs of doubt that accompany any departure from truth and reality. When viewed alone, or without continual reinforcement, these fictional world views eventually look ridiculous. Therefore people who hold such fictions need them constantly validated.

Such is the nature of human societies that any need produces the opportunity for gainful employment. From ancient times people have figured out ways to make a living off the doubts of others. This profession became institutionalized long ago in the form of religions. Immense corporations have emerged to validate the useful fictions of those who haven’t been able to learn the truths of the universe that others have discovered so far. How this was done in prehistoric times is unknown, but the now-standard approach to making a living validating people’s fictions is to integrate their natural desire for social contact with a weekly review of the particular fiction’s narrative. So it’s more like “Any port on Sunday morning.”

Not all humans readily accept fictional explanations of the world. Some look to the human accumulation of knowledge and the disciplined thought processes we call science and rational thought. Rational thought and science are different ways of thinking compared to embracing a useful fiction. Where the former is an active process, the latter is the maintenance of a narrative. Rational thought and science are the exploration, vetting and accumulation of knowledge. By contrast, the fictions of religion are narratives to be learned and reinforced. Not that science and rational thought fully describe the universe, or even the tiny realm that is human experience. They go a long way toward describing all of what we see with unaided and aided eyes, and their ideas are interconnected in a mutually supporting matrix of verifiable theory. Yet they offer cold reason to an emotive and instinctual species.

Why do some humans accept a reality that ranges from bland to harsh, when everywhere in their reach are useful fictions with narratives and rituals tailored to the evolved needs of a sentient social species? Why just that one port in the storm? Science writer Chet Raymo has written “In the human self the universe becomes conscious of itself.” In some humans more than others, it seems. To this science-embracing rational-aspiring presumably sentient human there is great beauty in the thought that through our consciousness the universe can see itself. It says that our minds have a unique transcendence among the matter and energy in the universe, those of us who choose reality over fiction regardless how useful the fiction might be.

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