Me, my Body and I: Part 3

It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.

In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.

By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.

The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.

Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.

That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.

Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.

I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”

“Yes,” she says, “of course.”

I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”

She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”

That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.

So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.

It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.

Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?

The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?

As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.

Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.

Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.

Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:

But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)

Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.

In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.

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*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: https://rogerjgalbert.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post&jetpack-copy=874. You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.

Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.

The Agility of Suffering.

So, it’s almost September and time to get writing again. I haven’t been particularly active over the summer, but now I’m working up to a regular schedule of reading and writing.

It’s been an interesting summer, hot and dry with heavy smoke in the air at times. Wildfires still burn on the north end of Vancouver Island. And there’s been pain. Lots of it for Carolyn with her appendectomy and arthritis and me, well I suffer from chronic pain. I’m now seeing an amazing physiotherapist and it could be, it just could be, that I will find some relief from the pain that has plagued me for years around my shoulders, back and neck. I don’t believe there’s much that can be done about the pain that I still suffer from around the sites of past surgeries, one that removed a kidney and another on my lower back. I can deal with all the pain although it does make me cranky from time to time as Carolyn can attest, and it can drain me of energy.

I recently wrote about pain in this blog. I focussed specifically on the invisibility of pain and the fact that an individual’s pain is always assumed rather than demonstrated empirically. That is to say that if you break your leg in a biking accident, the medical professionals can easily ascertain the reality of the fracture, but the pain you would surely feel would not be evident, nor clearly measurable. When I got my left kidney removed in 2002 to excise kidney cell cancer, the general assumption was that I would have some pain. That assumption was correct and I was dosed with morphine to try to mitigate the pain. It worked, but years later I still feel the need now and again to take a T3, or Tylenol with codeine for the pain. The pain in my side from the surgery is still very real although the experts at the pain clinic at the Nanaimo General Hospital’s Pain Clinic were convinced when I was a patient there a few years ago that the pain comes from my brain and not from my side.

The pain your doctor acknowledges you must be feeling after surgery or a broken leg can only be measured subjectively, on a scale of 1 to 10, say. Some people, one in a million according to a couple of websites I consulted, cannot feel pain and their lives are extremely hazardous because of it.  Apparently, we need pain. It warns us of underlying problems and issues. It urges us to seek relief and balance.

Without any hard evidence, I hypothesize that people experience pain idiosyncratically. That is, some of us may be highly sensitive to pain while some of us are more or less inured to it. That goes for physical as well as psychic pain. In my next post, I want to address the issue of the amount of social, individual and economic resources that go into pain detection, management, and alleviation.

In this post I want to move away from pain somewhat to consider suffering. Suffering, although most people can agree on a general definition of it as generalized and sustained pain, has been vilified as a great social evil or hailed as the way to eternal life, in fact, the only way to eternal life. In a short blog post I cannot begin to summarize the importance that the concept of suffering has had (and still has) in human history. It is a concept that infuses so much of our existence and our attention. And it’s used in so many ways, hence its agility.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” It’s worth dwelling on this quote for a bit. What does it mean “to live is to suffer”?

Well, I surmise that it may have to do with how we define suffering as essentially being unable or unwilling to change something. If I say, “I don’t suffer fools gladly”, that means that I won’t put up with their crap. Most people suffer fools silently as is sufficiently demonstrated in the U.S. at the moment. I suffer pain, but some people suffer loneliness (or the inability to form meaningful relationships with other people). Some suffer success (or the inability to accept the fact that they stand out). Some suffer fame (of the inability to accept the attention paid to them by larger numbers of people). To ‘put up with’ pain means to suffer pain. To suffer means to be blocked, to be unable to move to change or alleviate distress or pain, to lose control. To suffer means to be unable to accept life and death.

Shakespeare has Hamlet say in a famous soliloquy: “Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?” Hamlet must answer this question for himself. Should he silently put up with disloyalty and nastiness in the family or stand up and fight? Neither option is great, but Shakespeare’s meaning is clear.

So, how does this relate to Nietzsche’s aphorism? The way I read it, Nietzsche is saying that life is a process of helplessly awaiting death. Shakespeare gives Hamlet a choice between two paths. Life doesn’t do that for us. There is only one possible outcome when we are born. We suffer in waiting for our final breath. We can do nothing about it. We are helpless in the face of it. That is a basic definition of suffering. Of course, us humans with our big brains were not going to accept that fate, so we invented a myriad of cultural ways of denying death, of convincing ourselves that for us, death doesn’t exist.[1] Baptism is one ritual specifically designed to thwart death. Baptism, for believers, welcomes the initiate into a possible eternal life.

One of the more deleterious consequences of this obsession with denying death is the conclusion that any one group’s death denying immortality projects must be exclusive. Simply put, if my immortality project promises me eternal life, then yours must be a lie and must be defeated to prove it. A vivid example of this is congruent with colonialism. Christian missionaries who accompanied European traders, explorers and exploiters in the early history of the global spread of capitalist production considered it their duty to extinguish indigenous belief systems, forcing locals to adopt Christianity or face extermination. To a large extent, they succeeded although vestiges of indigenous immortality projects have survived to this day and are sometimes rallying points for indigenous cultural, social and economic revival.

For religious folk, suffering is a big deal. Christians and Jews are intimately familiar with suffering having been condemned to it in this mortal coil because of the follies in the Garden of Eden. In contrast, suffering is endemic to life as Thomas Hobbes maintained just because it is, history proves it. Jordan Peterson, a contemporary pop philosopher not remotely in Hobbes’ league, also finds that suffering is the essence of life as is brutality. He is not ‘religious’ himself, but he does support the religious view that suffering is essential. For Peterson, it is an indispensable element of human psychological growth.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that suffering is not an essential part of human and other sentient life. However, unless we agree to dwell on one end of the continuum of human suffering and human bliss, or accept the idea that life is itself suffering, we must accept that suffering is always contingent, conditional and situational. Life is not endless suffering for everyone. We are capable of moments of glee, pain free activity, both physical and psychic (or mental). Yes, we live and we die, but acceptance of that fact can alleviate much suffering.

Many religious folks, not just Christians by any stretch of the imagination, are focussed on arriving at that acceptance by denying earthly death. They defy their helplessness before death by handing over control over their lives to whatever god or deity they chose to create for themselves. Not all of us share in that type of denial. Those of us who are irreligious have to accept the fact of biological death like we accept the fact of biological life because, in fact, they depend on each other. Life cannot exist without death.

So, suffer away folks. As I write earlier in this blog post, I suffer from chronic pain. I’d like it to go away, but it’s not likely to happen. That means I have a choice to make, just like the choice Shakespeare gave to Hamlet. I can either suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or fight on until there is no more fight left in this old body of mine. I’m not particularly good at suffering slings and arrows, so I guess I only have one option left. That really simplifies life.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] For a thorough analysis of death denial there is no better source in my mind than Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, available on Amazon or better still, order it from your local bookstore.

Escape 28: What is the heroic society?

Escape 28: What is the heroic society?

 

So, I’ve come to the last chapter of Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil in this series of posts I’ve come to refer to as my Becker marathon.  In this post and the last 2 to follow in the next couple of days, I work through this last chapter called Retrospect and Conclusion: What is the Heroic Society?  It’s divided into 4 sections, History, Psychology, The Science of Man and the Conclusion [to this last chapter] Today, I take on his section on History, tomorrow, the section on Psychology and on the last day, this Thursday, The Science of Man and the Conclusion. 

In this last chapter, it’s clear to me that Becker is grasping at straws.  He has produced this mind-boggling analysis of what drives us and has driven us throughout history, our fear of death and our fear of life.  Now what?  How are we to suddenly lose our fear of death and put down the weapons we’ve used in their increasingly terrifying effectiveness in our determination to eliminate evil on the planet in the form of the ‘other’?  We’ll get to his final thoughts on this in the last post in this series, but for now, History.

In the opening three paragraphs of this chapter Becker notes the emptiness of a classical Marxist analysis for the ‘liberation’ of humankind, which it claims will come after capitalism has run its course.  I don’t think Becker is correct in his analysis of Marx because the only foray into utopianism that Marx attempted was in his book The German Ideology and he regretted that for the rest of his life.  After he got over his youthful enthusiasm and humanism, he sat in the British Museum and studied until he got bum boils and concluded that the only thing he could say for sure about the fall of capitalism was that there would be no more exploitation of labour by capital because capital will have virtually eliminated labour in successive waves of overproduction.  Becker wants to see Marxism as a failed potential immortality ideology for the masses.  So, what is to be done? [Yes, that’s the title of one of Lenin’s books]

Well, we now know a lot more about the psychodynamics of history.  It’s…

From the outside a saga of tyranny, violence, coercion; from the inside, self-delusion and self-enslavement.

If we didn’t have transference, we wouldn’t be able to stand life. We localize our fear and terror, make it manageable all the while exchanging our freedom for life.  We are sorry creatures indeed, because unlike other animals we have ‘made death conscious.’ (p.148) Evil is in anything that makes us sick, wounds us or even ‘deprives us of pleasure.’ (p.148) 

The result is one of the great tragedies of human existence, what we might call the need to ‘fetishize evil,’ to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled.  It is tragic precisely because it is sometimes very arbitrary; men make fantasies about evil, see it in the wrong places, and destroy themselves and others by uselessly thrashing about. 

We do this so much it’s quite pathetic, really.  Note what the Ugandan government has just done.  The Ministry of Ethics and Integrity there is charged with seeing gays and lesbians punished and outlawed.  Several US states would do the same and some are actively pursuing action against gays and lesbians.  They see gays and lesbians as threats to their values.  Wow, they obviously have very weak and precarious values to see gays and lesbians as a threat to them.  As Nietzsche concluded, ‘all moral categories are power categories; they are not about virtue in any abstract sense.’ (P. 149) 

Purity, goodness, rightness – these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death; the striving for perfection is a way of qualifying for extraspecial immunity not only in this world but in others to come.  Hence all categories of dirt, filth, imperfection, and error are vulnerability categories, power problems.

You can see why Tea Party Republicans and their counterparts in Uganda are so intent on persecuting gays and lesbians.  They are vulnerability categories in their world!  They need to be eliminated.  Of course, we all need to individuate ourselves, to feel that our lives are meaningful.  What better way of showing that we are special and deserving of power and life is to dedicate ourselves to eliminating dirt, filth, imperfection and error?  Now that’s a heroic thing to do.

In other words, man is fated, as William James saw, to consider this earth as a theatre for heroism, and his life a vehicle for heroic acts which aim precisely to transcend evil…To be a true hero is to triumph over disease, want, death.

Even better sometimes, to be a true hero is to lay down one’s life to secure the lives of others.  Think here of Jesus and scores of other heroes in history who died to secure mankind…‘by their blood we are saved.’ (p.151) 

 

Freud was very pessimistic about the future of humankind.  For Freud we humans are doomed by our own instincts for evil.  Becker doesn’t buy that.  For him, we are born hunters so it may seem that we ‘enjoy the feeling of maximizing [our] organismic powers at the expense of the trapped and helpless prey.’ (p. 152)

The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited animal with unlimited horizons. Many is the only animal that is not armed with the natural instinctive mechanisms of programming for shrinking his world down to a size that he can automatically act on…Men have to keep from going mad by biting off small pieces of reality which they can get some command over and some organismic satisfaction from.

 

The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system.  Which is another way of saying that societies are standardized systems of death denial; they give structure to the formulas for heroic transcendence.  History can then be looked at as a succession of immortality ideologies, or as a mixture at any time of several of these ideologies.

And so it came to be that we could only become heroic by following orders.  Oh, I’m really summarizing Becker here and doing him an injustice in the process, no doubt.  He seems most comfortable when he is chastising our species in a sense for a history filled with greater and greater paradigms for death denial, ones that expect us to be heroes as individuals, all right, but by ‘following orders.’  This is as true for Christianity as it is for Capitalism.  Follow orders and you will be saved.  The word ‘orders’ here may seem a little harsh and arbitrary because this is not a military type order.  It’s a prescription for salvation that does not tolerate defiance.  In capitalist terms, the ‘order’ means to consume. 

Now a new type of productive and scientific hero came into prominence, and we are still living this today. More cars produced by Detroit, higher stock market prices, more profits, more goods moving – all this equals more heroism.  And with the French Revolution another type of modern hero was codified: the revolutionary hero who will bring an end to injustice and evil once and for all, by bringing into being a new utopian society perfect in its purity.