Agency is a difficult topic. It’s simple in principle and so complex in application it can appear simple again, as we can learn to accept it. Much of our difficulty with this issue is a result of extant false beliefs we were taught. There are serious problems with the classical ideas of “Free Will”, and among these is the presupposition that something supernatural exists to be free from. Most of our classical philosophers held religious beliefs including ideas of a god or gods. For most of our history we have tried to conceptualize ourselves in this dishonest context, using a wide array of religious beliefs to accomplish it. Why?
Why do so many people feel they need these false beliefs? It’s because religious beliefs are crafted to provide comfortable and untrue explanations for things we find unacceptable, like our mortality and our individual agency. Many religious people openly admit they became religious while seeking a source of comfort from it. Religions are carefully designed frameworks of denial that have proven plausible enough for some people to accept. Again, why?
Religions provide a structured method of dosing ourselves with our endogenous drugs, those molecules we produce and use to perceive emotions. They provide rules about how people are expected to make themselves feel, and the practice of these rules creates dependency in the believer. They feel they need more convincing from the source to maintain the flow of comforting feelings they’re inducing in themselves. Why don’t they just make themselves dispense the same molecules without the theatrics?
Conscience must be subjugated in order to value dishonesty. There are many ways in which we accomplish this feat of mental illness, but they all rely on similar principles. We reject our own agency in order to pretend we can’t be honest with ourselves. The believer in this context puts their trust in the source of their religious dogma rather than their own judgment. A person convinced they need this kind of indoctrination to be moral will perceive other people who don’t agree and don’t adhere to compatible views as being immoral, because they require the self validation to protect the flow of valued feelings. People in this context frequently abuse outrage over trivial things to induce very strong feelings to accept less plausible self deceptions. The drunker we make ourselves on our feelings, the more our judgment, our conscience suffers. So by learning and occupying their conscious thoughts with religious rules about how they are expected to feel, and applying those rules to their feelings they make themselves able to accept more and more dishonest religious dogma – and they enjoy the feelings in the process – and they become dependent on those feelings. This is why religion is so pervasive. It’s an elaborate hack of our emotionalism, but why?
Life is terrifying. Even in our modern world, without the comforts of our common denials life is and will remain terrifying – right up until we can learn to accept it. Without first accepting what we are we cannot accept where we’re going and what we’re experiencing, not in anything resembling totality. It’s only in very modern times that we’ve had open access to scientific information about our physical and chemical nature. Modern genetics was pioneered in the 1860s and not really popularized until the turn of the century. Really, it’s amazing we got as far with our educational efforts as we did before the regressives among us derailed our education systems. Many people of many religions would love nothing more than to scrub physics from the body of human knowledge, and I worry we are headed for dark ages like that again as our climate crisis worsens.
So, we have billions of frightened people who have been raised and taught to believe they should induce strong emotions in themselves to deal with their fear of living (and dying), and who concurrently believe that honest acceptance of the science we understand as it applies to humanity is evil. This is so backwards. If evil exists as a useful concept it is dishonesty made manifest through deliberate action. Religion is gaslighting and projection, though many individual adherents of religion genuinely believe they are doing something good. What it really accomplishes is the prevention of human sapient development. It’s frightened people in the shadows begging not to learn more because they won’t accept their role as a sapient animal momentarily existing on a planet somewhere in the Universe.
What I have long struggled to understand is how people can continue to satisfy themselves with denial of which they’ve been made consciously aware. What I mean is, even after the self deception of religion is exposed within a person they often remain able to continue on using the ritual aspect of their beliefs to perpetuate the forms of emotionalism they value, to protect the flow of their valued feelings. I can only surmise that this is how strong our endogenous addictions can become. We are capable of not only rejecting real aspects of ourselves and our environments, we can also reject any sense of conscience, integrity or self respect and go all-in on our emotionalism. People who do this often present as zealots and extremists, and narcissists, though they have a different way of expressing it. Why are we capable of throwing away our faculties and convincing ourselves this is a good thing?
It’s a side effect of emergent sapience. We are capable of imagining anything we wish based on any permutation of smashing together memories we’ve acquired. We are capable of imagining ourselves as not caring what reality even is. We’re capable of imagining any reasoning within the scope described to explain our ignorance of ourselves and our environment. It’s not like we didn’t adapt tools to deal with this aspect of existence. We developed a strong sense of conscience persistent enough that we developed a structure in our brains with which to support such thought and reflection. We possess the will of our chemistry, as we are expressions of chemistry, or physics if you prefer, and conscience is the natural mechanism by which we try to accurately distinguish and accept what is real. Subjugating conscience in furtherance of emotionalism and denial comes with its drawbacks. By rejecting our own agency we become prone to abusing not just ourselves but the people around us. We engage in self destructive behaviours, and we feel just fine about it because we have our emotionalism to intoxicate us with well developed rules and expectations regarding how to abuse it.
We are also capable of imagining ourselves differently. I can imagine myself accepting of reality. I can imagine myself comfortable with my imminent mortality (in any grand scheme or timescale). I can imagine myself free of the rules and expectations people use to define how they use or abuse their emotionalism. I can imagine myself pursuing greater self honesty with myself until the day I die, and I can even imagine myself enjoying at least some of the process. I’m also capable of doing these things because they are realistic expectations I have created for myself based on my most honest long term appraisal of the information available to me.
I charge that humanity can be much better than it is. The only thing that distinguishes me from anybody else is the particulars of my upbringing, the nitty gritty of my personal experiences that through adaption led me to become the person I am today. That and I’ve chosen to undertake this task of understanding and acceptance for self edification. It means something to me, and it provides me with a sense of conviction I carefully monitor for extravagance, but that I cannot deny.
It’s too late for us to fix our world. We don’t have very long left to enjoy it. We can choose to face our decline with much less self induced suffering by working on our self honesty. Billions of people never will. This is how far humanity got, our Great Filter event if such a principle is true. It doesn’t matter on this scale because this information is valuable on a personal level, a scope of one. Self honesty can only be effectively pursued by deliberate choice. It’s an individual choice, and recognizing it as a possible choice (never mind an appealing one) often requires working through the false beliefs we already hold until we can nurture back some functionality to our conscience. And as strange as it may sound, this amounts to choosing to value self honesty more.
It shouldn’t sound strange that we alter the functionality of our brains by pursuing various kinds of thought. As a species, as a civilization we have normalized this thing we call dishonesty to such an extent we have trouble imagining ourselves without it. Yet it’s an explicitly learned behaviour, concealed in plain sight by its very deceptive nature. The molecules with which we perceive feeling are so incredibly potent as endogenous drugs. I have to believe that if we were more sapient, if we had say another million years of development at the hunter/gatherer stage before we discovered agriculture and fossil fuels, perhaps we would have grown to become more honest more easily. I think the rapidly changing nature of our civilization as it has tried to keep pace with the development of human technology has had a confounding effect on our moral development. We’ve overwhelmed ourselves, deliberately, so we have an excuse to be overwhelmed, and something to occupy our thoughts other than death and how we might try to avoid it a little longer.