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February 2, 2006

Times on Itch for Meaning

The New York Times editiorial page is not known for discussions of the validity or usefulness of religion. But how about this line from an editorial this morning:

"This is human nature at work. There is nothing we love better than finding order where we suspect it may not exist and deciphering meaning where meaning may not be intended."

Not a bad explanation for why so many believe an intelligence lurks behind the universe. However, it appeared in an editorial on the effort to find a pattern in Academy Award nominations.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 2, 2006 8:13 PM


Looking for patterns provides a sense of control and empowerment. If there is structure within the chaos, and if there is an intelligible (although not necessarily intelligent) design behind the apparently disordered system, then that system can be manipulated, and inputs can affect the outcomes. That means that human beings can actually control their destiny. So if our ancestors, god bless them, noticed that twice in a row it rained the day after they killed the sheep by slicing its throat from left to right rather than vice-versa, it is much more beneficial to not think of it as a coincidence. And if it's not a coincidence but a pattern, a conscience behind the pattern is just a step away, because pattern is a product of the mind. And who are we, after all, to challenge the rain brain's taste in mutton, especially since by knowing this taste and pandering to it we can control the weather. Finding order in the disordered and meaning in the meaningless provides delusions of power so maybe it is indeed human nature at work.

As an aside, an interesting point from Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs & Steel." Two purposes of religion, besides providing justification for transfer of wealth to kleptocrats (Diamond has a longer passage on this, but we all know that one - if not, see U.S. gvt.) are:

"insitutionalized religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing eachother - by providing them with a bond not based on kinship
[no sense of nationalism in band/tribe stage, Diamond claims].
Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others."

Posted by: Andrey at February 2, 2006 11:25 PM

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