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Jesse Bering: “The God Instinct” (Part 2)

In this post the second, revised part of my final evaluation of Jesse Bering’s The God Instinct (in the US published as The Belief Instinct).

FOR DUTCH VISITORS: De Nederlandse samenvatting van Berings boek, is in delen HIER te vinden.

Jesse Bering, The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. London: Nicholas Brealey / New York: W.W. Norton 2011. xiii, 252 pp.


B. A nihilistic worldview

Anyone who reads Bering’s book carefully will notice that Bering seems to have an extremely nihilistic view of life. He argues that reality lacks any inherent meaning. Everything that happens, just happens. Although everything happens because of a natural cause (as any good materialist will acknowledge), everything happens without a reason. Since our brain apparently cannot accept such a view – the mind is always looking for order, and will project order if there is none to be found – the brain will project meaning onto the meaningless. We nowhere find meaning, because our reality is profoundly meaningless. Our brains make meaning. But Bering argues that this attempt leads merely to illusions: the illusion of meaningfulness, purpose and destiny. Any meaning that we believe we perceive in reality, is a construct, an illusion created by our cognitive system.

The question that any reader is faced with is: does there remain anything worth living for? [1] Is not everything we think is of value merely an illusion if there is no inherent meaning? What makes one want to come out of bed in the morning and what prevents one from jumping of the highest tower if everything is eventually meaningless? Bering does state at one point that We can live for each other – here and now, before it’s too late, sympathetically sharing snapshots from inside our still-conscious heads, all 6.7 billion heads containing just as many hypothetical universes, most of them, unfortunately, spinning feverishly with the illusions we’ve just shattered (205). But why should we live for each other? The position that Bering sketches in his book ultimately leads to a terrifying existential nihilism. (In the book the name of Sartre often pops up, apparently one of Bering’s heroes.) The question is: how should one respond to that? Let us look at what Bering’s nihilism is based on, and where that takes us. In the end, I believe in this case we can justifiably say that it is science that comes to the rescue by pointing to a way out.

Bering’s nihilism is grounded in his tacit claim that is present throughout the book, namely that he is able to separate what is real, what is objective reality, from what is mere illusion. Bering claims that he is able to see through the illusions created by our brains, and he thus implies a kind of methodology to distinguish illusion from reality. But what is this methodology? Throughout the book, Bering seems to assume that anything that cannot be studied using scientific means and methods, simply does not exist. What science cannot study is not real. As a consequence – and note that Bering seems to accept this consequence – we lose much of our world and much of what we find valuable.

Thus Bering would probably not deny that the tree outside my window, that I perceive from where I sit, is really there, even though in reality it is my brain that creates the perception of the tree (triggered by what is perceived by my senses). It is thus not the case that everything that the brain processes is automatically an illusion. If that would be the case, the “outside world” would be completely reduced to mere illusion, which would result in a Berkeleyan idealism (and Bering definitely is no idealist). The point is that the existence of the tree can be confirmed or rejected by relatively simple tests: ask any number of people whether the tree is there, knock on the tree, smell it, saw it to pieces, etc., and nobody will maintain that the tree isn’t there. However, things are different when it comes to “meaning”. Can one empirically observe “meaning”? Or God?

Is God empirically detectable? Theologians claim that God is by definition unobservable, and that everything that can be empirically observed is not-God. This means that the existence of God is by definition unverifiable and unfalsifiable. God is inaccessible by scientific methods and instruments. However, it seems that Bering assumes that if we are unable to determine the existence of meaning or of God objectively and scientifically, it is safe to say that our brains create an illusion when they seem to observe meaning or God’s action in reality. The same goes for the afterlife, which also by definition cannot be verified or falsified, and thus also is an illusion created by human brains that have no idea how to think about their own deaths and therefore extrapolate to an afterlife, based on the knowledge and experience gained in this life.

What Bering furthermore seems to assume is that once we are able to identify illusion from reality, we are somehow morally obliged to get rid of the illusion. To stick to our illusions, to keep the illusions alive is somehow not-done. But even if it were morally acceptable to cling to illusions, we obviously would not hang on to an illusion once we discovered its illusory character. Once we know that a perception is an illusion and thus not real, we quickly lose interest, and would rather get rid of the illusion, preferring to see the world as it “really” is.

Now, what are the consequences when we follow Bering’s line of reasoning?

First, it would be applicable to something most of us have experienced in real life, something like love. Scientists tell us that when we are in love, there are many hormonal and neurochemical processes going on in our bodies and brains. The desired girl is not really as pretty as her lover perceives and portrays her to be. That she’s the only one for him is also, of course, nonsense (which he may find out later in life). The unique beauty that her lover perceives is an illusion. He is under the influence of chemicals ravaging his brain, obscuring his perception of objective reality and clouding his judgment. Infatuation and love become mere illusions if the scientific perspective is taken as ultimately normative. Those phenomena to which we refer when we use the concept of “love” are in reality nothing more than hormonal and neurochemical processes, and all the lofty ideas surrounding love are mere illusions. But if that is the case, why would we still fall in love? Shouldn’t we get rid of the illusions that our horny brains create? Or to exaggerate somewhat: from a reproductive standpoint mere lust is enough to induce me to pick up a fertile woman that I can fertilize in a rather mechanical (though pleasurable) way, so as to pass on my genes. What need for love from a scientific perspective?

But we can go further. What does it mean that you love your children? Love for your child means that you protect your child because the genes that you have passed on in your child need to be protected. Feeling love for your child is biologically a highly efficient strategy. But if I love my child because my genes somehow compel me to do so, then that feeling is ultimately an illusion. Furthermore, friendly interaction with fellow humans becomes an illusion (as our cynical society increasingly seems to confirm), because true altruism does not exist but egotistic greed is the objective reality motivating people to act as they do. People act ultimately by pure self-interest (according to Bering’s assumed “man is a wolf” scenario).

Such a materialist-reductionist view undermines all of human morality. Bering’s view seems to reduce morality to merely veneer on an otherwise amoral and if the opportunity arises downright immoral human being. There is no reason for me to behave properly when I’m in the company of fellow-humans, except for the fact that if I do not adjust to their morals, I risk to be eventually cast out of the community, with the result that I probably find no partner and will not be able to pass on my genes. It is from a reproductive point of view foolish to behave immorally, it is sensible (i.e., rational) to adjust to the moral rules of the community, though these are ultimately illusory and only inhibit the underlying animal longings which will never go away.

Bering’s position ultimately is breath-taking. It takes a lot of courage to endure such a stoic position. Bering admits in multiple places in his book that most people are unable to do so. Even most atheists finally succumb to the safe illusions that our brains create, with the exception of God’s existence. Bering argues that for most of them their atheism is more a verbal muzzling of God – a conscious, executively made decision to reject one’s own intuition about a faceless übermind involved in our personal affairs – Than it is a true cognitive exorcism (164). Yet he states that this should not be regarded as weak or foolish behavior: It just makes us human (164). Few people can ultimately bare atheism’s nihilistic implications. For Bering being in the full light or godless shattered this illusion […] a spectacular position to find oneself in (202-203).

There is, however, one minor detail that Bering seems to overlook. For how does Bering know whether this “spectacular position” that he finds himself in, and that is based on the alleged ability to distinguish illusions from the objective reality, is not itself an illusion?

Take for example the statement of Paul Bloom, as quoted in Bering’s book: The driving force behind natural selection is survival and reproduction, not truth (quoted on p. 196). If Bloom is right, this means that our brains may not be designed or equipped for discovering or knowing the truth and, consequently, that the claim to attain true objectivity is an illusion. We are unable to make the distinction between illusion and objective reality. That we are able to do this, as Bering assumes, is itself an illusion, prompted by the apparent success that the use of our cognitive abilities in our daily lives often seems to yield. But if so,  chances are that Bering’s own perception of truth is an illusion. Bering’s view of life is not the inexorable outcome of scientific research, but in the end appears to be a mere philosophical interpretation of scientific data – one interpretations among many possible alternatives. Obviously, this conclusion gives us no justification to conclude the world and life are inherently meaningful. Nor does it justify the claim that God exists. But at least it gives some space to breathe again and rethink our options.


[1] This is also the central theme of Owen Flanagan’s book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (Cambridge, MA/London: The MIT Press 2007).

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