Casting out devils

Mark Pottenger


I recently heard someone read an excerpt from a book attempting to make a metaphysical point. I don't recall the author or title, but the little I heard was plenty to let me know I want nothing to do with that book or author. I probably should have recorded the author and title for a list to actively avoid.

The excerpt was a blatant example of a First Level Awareness attempt to discuss Third Level Awareness issues. The author conjured up "spiritual viruses" to try to explain aspects of the modern world, throwing in the word quantum along the way. Viruses of any sort are a First Level topic. First Level Awareness perceives a causal world and consistently looks for proximate physical causes to explain everything in the world. An author stuck in First Level trying to explain a spiritual aspect of reality can land on "spiritual viruses" as an answer, and never notice that they have stretched an analogy beyond the breaking point. They need to be cut off by Occam's Razor.

We have used the term "Spiritual DNA" for decades in LA-CCRS meetings, but we use it knowing that we are using an analogy to create a verbal placeholder, not positing an actual First-level existence. See Some Ideas for LA-CCRS Discussions for a little more discussion.

A few of my core personal beliefs are pantheistic matter-spirit monism, omnitemporalism, and that Occam's Razor is useful. See Implications of Infinity, Spiritual Science and Philosophical Questions for more.

First Level Awareness attempts to deal with the problem of evil (how can evil exist in a universe with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God?) can lead (and have led) to the invention of devils. The recent excerpt was, as I heard it, a new invention of devils in modern secular language ("spiritual viruses"). In my belief system, evil does not originate with malevolent supernatural entities. Evil is simply one possible aspect of reality and human nature.

Among the many characteristics that people express to different degrees are empathy, a propensity for anthropomorphism, and a propensity to believe conspiracy theories. These and many other characteristics relate to theory of mind, our ability to guess the mental states of others. It is possible that mirror neurons are a component of the brain's ability to support these characteristics, or they might turn out to supported be elsewhere in the brain.

People with some mixes of the above characteristics are much more likely than others to attribute intelligence and conscious choice to aspects of nature that can instead be explained based on simple evolutionary pressures. A recent discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated this, with questions about the intelligence of viruses. Viruses are biological structures, but there is still debate in the scientific community whether or not to even consider them alive. If they are living things, they are the simplest known, and they are a long way from the levels of complexity of even the lowest recognized level of intelligence.

Another example of behavior we can see in the world and unnecessarily assume shows a collective intelligence is the flocking of birds or shoaling of fish or swarming of insects. The apparent intelligence of the group is an emergent property arising from simple behaviors of the members of the group.

Our brains are wired to make stories to try to understand the world. Before modern scientific world-views became common, many explanatory stories included anthropomorphic projections of human attributes onto parts of nature, producing rich mythologies with gods, devils, demons, dryads, naiads, nymphs, nature spirits, etc. Modern people with personalities similar to ancient myth-makers are still likely to accept the existence of devils, or even invent new ones using modern secular terminology. I consider the excerpt that started this musing an example of this.

Our culture includes stereotypes suggesting that many scientists are nerds or geeks, both intellectual and socially awkward. I think the stereotype may have arisen in part due to personalities that do science well. Being socially awkward can sometimes be a consequence of a person not being good at perceiving social cues. If, as I suspect, ability to perceive social cues and a propensity for anthropomorphism depend on some of the same brain circuitry, then scientists who are good at more truly modeling the world without adding anthropomorphic projections may be less able to perceive social cues. The flip side of this is that more socially adept people will also be more likely to accept or invent anthropomorphic explanations for features of the world.

A propensity to believe conspiracy theories also ties in to this cluster of characteristics. I think people who want the stories that explain their worlds to be driven more by choices by intelligent entities than by impersonal or even non-living forces are much more likely to look for conspiracies.

A related variation (showing that this isn't a simple binary choice) is a propensity for othering: demeaning or dehumanizing other people and treating them as devils. In terms of components, this would be done more by people with weak empathy, a weak or distorted theory of mind, and weak anthropomorphic tendencies.

Now to the "casting out", which requires Second Level Awareness (or System 2 in Kahneman's terminology).

See my Why rational arguments rarely change minds musing (and the Lizards and Models postscript) for a discussion about how hard it is for people to change deep beliefs.

Unfortunately, even knowing how hard the process is, I believe that the best way to reduce the number of devils in the world is to have more people use modern scientific mindsets to view and describe the world. As earlier musings have pointed out, it could take generations after stopping the propagation of harmful mindsets for scientific mindsets to become more widespread.

Understand that physical viruses are biological structures adapted by evolutionary processes to propagate by hijacking biochemical resources of cells they infect. That this harms the host cells and organisms is an unfortunate consequence of their evolutionary success, not an intelligent and malevolent choice.

My pantheistic belief-system includes a lot of intelligence in the Universe, but it does not require that intelligence to exist in the form of anthropomorphic individuals (gods, demons, devils, spirits, etc.). Any time action by a supernatural entity is offered to explain anything in the natural world, start looking for alternate explanations limited to the natural world. If you still prefer supernatural explanations, look for impersonal variations that don't require the invention of whole classes of beings.

Understand that while history does include actual conspiracies, they almost always involve small numbers of people for short periods of time. Long-term conspiracies with large numbers of conspirators are somewhere between extremely difficult and actually impossible to achieve in the real world. Any time a conspiracy is offered as an explanation for anything, start slicing away at that explanation with Occam's Razor—look for simpler explanations that don't require implausible inventions.

Any time you encounter language demeaning any group identified by race, religion, language, national origin, gender, gender identity, etc., start questioning the source. Remember that most measurable human characteristics have scales of possible values. Very few characteristics, except the ability of a large subset of females to bear and breast-feed children, exist only in one subset of humanity. If you encounter othering language, work up a list of characteristics shared by or overlapping between the speaker and those spoken of. This exercise will usually produce a much longer list of commonalities than differences.

Copyright © 2022 Mark Pottenger

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