Religion Week, 3: Explanation

by stephenpalmersf

No human being can live without a meaning framework. Such frameworks are essential to our conscious lives. For the overwhelming majority of our species’ time on this planet, these frameworks have been spiritual or religious. Atheism however is also a meaning framework, as is humanism.

Our method of creating frameworks of meaning is explanation. Human beings cannot remain passive in the face of some unexplained fact or experience. Consciousness requires them to augment their model of reality with this fact or experience: it has to be explained. Explanation is an essential ability, since our minds have to survive by creating a model of reality, and this model has to be as complete as possible. Snippets of reality cannot simply be ignored.

This is why human beings became such good pattern recognisers. Pattern recognition is the construction of whole explanations by knitting together smaller facts. We build explanations up into stories, which we then believe.

It is the case however that cumulative processes of explanation begin in the main with imagined explanations – for instance, the notion of a deity creating the universe, or of celestial and infernal realms. The complete absence of evidence for such imaginary explanations was, for early and all subsequent societies up to around the middle of the second millennium, not a problem. All that mattered was that the explanation worked for them.

From the twin dynamics of explanation and framework comes meaning. Meaning is coherence: wholeness. It is the experience of a consistent mental model. Yet a self-consistent model is not necessarily one also consistent with reality. Meaning in the past was a narrative generally agreed by a community which explained to their satisfaction fundamental, universal questions: how the universe began, how it will end, how human life begins, what happens when human beings die, and what the purpose of life is. Most traditions also have a strong sense of how life should be lived – a moral component. In almost all known cases these answers and traditions are couched in terms of myths, which, before the takeover of men and organised religion, were stories of life and living, essential to all. Karen Armstrong wrote the best introduction to the structure, meaning and purpose of myths in her book A Short History Of Myth.

So, human narratives did not in the distant past have to correspond with reality. At the very beginning, this was because we knew so little about the real world. Five thousand years ago we still knew very little. A thousand years ago we knew little, but things were changing by a process of cumulative understanding. A hundred years ago we had a new method of understanding the world, one which, unlike spirituality and religion, assumed the independence of the real world, and which therefore asked questions of the world rather than imposing an imaginary narrative upon it.

This may be the great redemption of humanity. True understanding is a one way process.