THE LAST ILLUSION
“A dualist acknowledges a fundamental distinction between matter and mind. A monist, by contrast, believes mind is a manifestation of matter…and cannot exist apart from matter.” From “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.
My mother, like her mother, told her children Bible stories with a view to bringing them up right. I remember being told of Noah building the Ark to save the good people and animals from the forty days and forty nights of rain. I recall one night during a dreadful rainstorm calling to my mother for reassurances that another such flood would not come. At other times, she cautioned me that I should be good because God sat on a throne in Heaven and kept books on everyone, recording daily good deeds and bad deeds, for a final reckoning on Judgment Day, when God determined who would go to Heaven and who would go to Hell.
Parents, ages ago, taught their offspring that the earth was flat. And learned professors in more enlightened times taught that the earth was the center around which all celestial bodies moved including the sun. But Magellan, once and for all, disproved the flat-earth theory; and Copernicus, much to the chagrin of the church, announced that the earth circled the sun and that the earth was not the center of the universe. Galileo nearly lost his life in support of Copernicus’s heresy.
And, of course, I believed in Santa Claus and the story that he traveled on Christmas night with a deer-drawn sleigh loaded with presents for good boys and girls, came down the chimney, deposited the presents under the Christmas tree, ate the cookies set out for him and with a ho, ho took off to visit the next family. Also, in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny.
Without doubt, the strongest belief I ever had was that I would love my first love forever. I cannot stress how certain I was that she was the only being in all the world that would insure that I would always be ecstatically happy so long as she loved me with the fidelity that angels love God.
But woe was me when whatever erodes love eroded my love and left me stranded naked in existence, painfully puzzled, and suddenly unanchored and adrift, much as is the condition of a spider whose web is swept away by an earthly and unimaginative housekeeper.
Where was one to look to find a foundation upon which to build a house of happiness that would withstand all erosions and disillusionments? I turned again to Christianity. I turned mostly to the ineffable morals of the Sermon on the Mount and to the Author thereof. But I soon learned that his message was subordinate to the church’s concern with liturgy, with ritual and with maintenance of the supernatural aspect of its theology. It was a dead end, except for the Sermon.
Knowledge was next. After an introduction to the liberal arts while earning a BA degree, I learned that scholars had agreed on 100 books as the greatest literary achievements of all time. I got the list and I diligently began to read. Becoming addicted to books was one of the smartest things I did in life. There is no end to great books; they are relatively inexpensive, particularly the classics; and reading them does no damage to one’s health but does wonderful things for one’s mind and spirit. But reading great literature is a Sisyphean endeavor: it’s interminable. Yet it was productive in that from my studies I disposed of other illusions and gleaned some truths.
Darwin’s theory upended Creationism, a myth anyone who has a curious and critical mind would find entertaining but beyond serious consideration as to the actual creation of man and earth and all the species earth mothers. Evolution is a more exciting, marvelous and believable explanation of how man got here and how he and all his plant and animal relations came to be.
Upon learning that philosophers considered freewill an illusion, I remained somewhat catatonic for days, considering the ramifications of the discovery. My first awareness that there was a controversy between free will and determinism was nearly six decades ago and I have studied the issue since. I am strongly convinced that free will is an illusion; that is, that man’s fate is inexorably and inevitably determined. He just has the illusion that he has a free choice. His anthropocentrism feeds the illusion, which induces arrogance and pride and error.
Whether one acts always with self interest above all other interests was an issue I wondered about. I concluded that every act is selfish but that there are acts, even though selfish, that benefit others and there are acts that benefit only the actor and do harm to others. Mark Twain concluded: “From cradle to grave, a man never does a single thing which has any first and foremost object but one—to secure peace of mind, spiritual comfort, for himself.”
Now I am reading Daniel Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained.” His thesis is that consciousness and the brain are one and the same; that is, there is no soul or spirit. There is only the illusion that there is. Just as the sun seems to rise and set, it seems to man that he is dual: mind and soul; but it only seems to him to be so. Man is all cause and effect, all chemical and electrical substance, just a materialistic machine. This is the death of the last illusion, if Dennett’s theory is true.
What if it is true that man has no free will and that he has no soul? Even the possibility that he has no free will, is cause enough to indict the criminal system with perpetrating centuries of outrageous and horrendous injustices and continuing them in so-called enlightened times. And if there is the possibility of no soul, the implications of it staggers the mind as to what has come from believing that he does or that he doesn’t. There is a vast clerical hierarchy, uncountable free-lance preachers and an infrastructure of churches, cathedrals and monuments that stacked on end would reach to Heaven— that would collapse into irrelevancy, if, in fact, man and woman are soulless; that is, are monistic instead of dualistic.
The very possibilities should be enough to temper faith and belief and induce man to look with passionate care to nature, his mother, for guidance, nurture and spirituality. And for a future.