Achieving Transcendence: Through Irrational Belief
Our society has continuously maintained some variation of an obsessive curiosity with the supernatural, often consisting of belief in our own immortality. We search for greater meaning in our lives in order to neglect the fact that our entire existential purpose is only a product of our own thoughts and perceptions. Humans go on to believe logically improbable, culturally influenced ideas simply to help fulfill our need for transcendence, which we often do not find in the superficial repetitive lives the majority of us live day in and day out.
Many of us comply to society by living in a mundane routine manner. Michelle Agner in her article “You Won’t Enjoy a Boring Job, But Here’s Why You’ll Choose One” emphasizes how “most people say they would prefer to work in a job with interesting and fulfilling opportunities, [but] they are actually inclined to pick a boring job over a stimulating one if they perceive they aren’t being paid enough for additional effort.” This system causes many of us to be ‘stuck’ in societal positions that do not meet our intrinsic needs, leaving us feeling unfulfilled.
If the work we do, or the position we hold in society does not grant us joy and will not in the future, then why are partaking in this system at all?
As a society, we are intimated by these cognitions. Rather than truly answering this question, the majority of us turn to supernatural beliefs to liberate ourselves of the doubts of our life lacking greater purpose
It is often the hope of being able to extend our lives into the supernatural realm that grants us the contempt we so greatly desire. It can be difficult to accept that our lives are truly as superficial as they appear, and having an outlet to believe and hope for something more is simply instinctual. In Davis Gorski’s article “Cold reality versus the wishful thinking of cryonics”, Gorski emphasizes how “no one wants to face the end of everything that one has been, is, and will be”. The perception that we are working toward something greater than ourselves is comforting; it dissipates our alternative feelings of unfulfillment.
How much we rely on these supernatural beliefs for self-fulfillment is usually dependent on our current quality of life. When one feels that their life possesses the sense of meaning that we as humans naturally seek, one can find themselves less dependent on fictional supernatural beliefs. However, when one feels uncertain, one often relies on supernatural beliefs to create artificial meaning. Julie Exline, in her article “In Pursuit of Warm and Fuzzies: Turning to Faith for Comfort”, describes supernatural beliefs as “a buffer against feelings of loneliness and emptiness.”
This phenomena is directly exemplified by the fluctuating levels of popularity of the supposed supernatural Ouija Board. The Ouija Board is a sort of board game where users believe that they can attempt a succance in a quick and effective manners imply by moving a game piece with their hands.
The board itself possesses no true supernatural power and is completely powered by unconscious hope. According to Freeman and numerous other sources, the Ouija Board is powered by our unconscious minds. Our muscles actually contract to produce movements that our subconscious desires, yet we are not consciously aware of our control of such movements. This phenomenon, known as the ideomotor effect, was first discovered by William Carpenter in 1852, and has been directly documented as the causation of the movements behind Ouija Board. Scientifically, any postulation that the Ouija Board holds true supernatural power can be disproved with irrefutable scientific fact.
However, the board sprouted into popularity in the midst of the late 19th century spiritual movement, a time where attempted communication with spirits was nearly a daily routine. For the most part, members of 19th century American society had short lives in poor conditions that lacked the meaningful work they would have preferred. Life in the 1890’s consisted largely of those living in rapidly growing cities, with underdeveloped municipal services. According to John Hansen’s statement in “ The Progressive Era”, “Rapid advances in technology and industrialization took its toll on Americans.” Generally speaking, the average 19th century American was not contempt with the quality or purpose of their life, and the invention of the Ouija Board allowed for the most efficient and easiest manner to achieve supernatural interaction.
The Ouija Board made the perception of communicating with the dead to not only be easy, but affordable to those suffering; it is no surprise that the Ouija Board was soon the preferred method of gathering evidence of the dead in this era of uncertainty. Since the board was invented at a time of rather lower quality of life, the force of unconscious false hope was exceedingly high, and the Ouija board was consequently an overnight success; McRobbie recalls how “it was a money-maker. By 1892, the Kennard Novelty Company went from one factory in Baltimore to two in Baltimore, two in New York, two in Chicago and one in London.” However, if the board had not been invented, people would have turned to another source for supernatural hope. The specific form of this false hope is irrelevant; people seek the same sense of comfort derived from a higher power, and will find it whether it is in the form of God or a board game.
As the quality of life improved once again through the social work associated with the Progressive Era, the popularity of the Ouija Board began to fade. In John Hansen’s article “ The Progressive Era”, Hansen articulates how the social movements helped raise the living standards in our newly industrialized cities. As standards went up, McRobbie claimed that there was a trough in Ouija Board sales, a result of the general mitigation of feelings of unfulfillment.
However, our society did not stay prosperous, McRobbie explains that “The 1910s and ’20s, with the devastations of World War I and the manic years of the Jazz Age and prohibition, witnessed a surge in Ouija popularity… In uncertain times people hold fast to belief and look for answers from just about anywhere, especially cheap [sources]”. The newly found challenges of war once again led to a spike in the usage of spirituality as a distractor from times of hardship. This spike in spirituality yet again lead to a significant increase in the sale of Ouija Boards.
The noticeable discrepancies between the popularity of Ouija Boards in times of prosperity versus despair corroborate how our dependency on supernatural hope varies directly on our quality of life and levels of fulfillment. It is clear that users turned to the Ouija as a supplement for feelings of self actualization. In other words, as feelings of self contempt have fluctuated throughout history, the reliance on the Ouija Board, as well as other forms of false hope, have correspondingly inversely fluctuated. There is a direct negative correlation between standard of living and the sales of Ouija Boards.
Today, it seems that Ouija Boards have become more or less irrelevant, at least compared to the previous century. However, our dependence on supernatural beliefs has not faded whatsoever; instead, the form of such beliefs has simply shifted. Nearly identical to how religious beliefs are beginning to fade, “A larger portion of the nation’s population describes themselves as religiously unaffiliated, jumping up 7 percent from 2007 to 2014.”, as Casey Leins claimed in her article “Americans Are Becoming Less Religious”, the belief in supernatural forces have likewise faded. This is simply a factor of culture; most humans are still searching for the same feelings of greater purpose, but our society is merely facilitating our outlets of belief in different, more culturally relevant forms.
One of the largest new ‘outlets’ to find purpose is artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is at the forefront of popular culture, just as Ouija Boards once were, so it is no surprise that the search for greater meaning has shifted towards the field of artificial intelligence.
Hopefuls of the possibilities of artificial intelligence, such as Kim Suozzi, who was cryogenically frozen after tragically dying of cancer, believe that one day the technology will be developed that will allow for our minds to be digitally scanned and uploaded to a computer like program (Harmon). The science fiction of artificial intelligence possesses the same components of any other supernatural belief: the promise of immortality, the presence of a higher power, and the perception of working towards a greater purpose.
Unlike the idea of the Ouija Board actually summoning spirits, the concept of uploading of our brain to a computer system may seem feasible sometime in the future. Some may argue that artificial intelligence is different, since it may be scientifically feasible and not simply a supernatural fantasy.
However, when one evaluates the scientific facts behind the idea, it becomes clear that functionally, artificial intelligence is little more than an altered version of the Ouija Board. Neither idea actually holds any potential to create immortality, yet both have been held sacred to its followers. In explaining the praticiliaty of artificial intelligence, Cori Bargeman states “We are nowhere close to brain emulation given our current level of understanding”.Even if were to somehow upload our brains to a computer, the debate as to whether one’s soul would even be present is an extremely complex issue. No matter, the technology will likely never exist, and cryonics will never work under our current law system; in order for someone to be frozen legally, they must be dead, so even if they were ever unfrozen, they would still be brain dead. “Basically, when a person dies, something killed him. It could be disease. It could be trauma…Even if it were actually possible to revive a frozen body, whatever killed the person would still be there” Gorski explains.
Although there are colossal differences between artificial intelligence and Ouija Boards, they have been used relatively in the same manner, for the same reason. Just as the Ouija Board’s supernatural powers are disproved by the ideomotor effect, cryonics is disproved by a simple evaluation of science, yet our desire for hope in something beyond ourselves preserves our beliefs.
Clearly it is human instinct to believe in these supernatural tendencies, but as our quality of life has improved with society advancement, our need to search for fulfillment outside of our actual lives should theoretically be lowered. However, our society continues to believe in these sort of beliefs.
There are many people whose lives are more or less completely fulfilled, successful people in our advanced, futuristic society who have meet all of their intrinsic needs, yet they maintain their beliefs in the supernatural. Is there truly a greater force present, if our beliefs continue beyond unfulfillment?
McRobbie suggests that the ideomotor effect observed in the Ouija Board phenomena begins to answer that very question. The ideomotor effect, or “automatic muscular movements that take place without the conscious will or volition of the individual” explained by McRobbie, involves the user moving the piece beneath their consciousness in order to perceive the presence of the supernatural. The ideomotor effect suggests that these desires are indeed innate, since they are clearly a natural component of human behavior and brain function. Therefore, does our desire for greater meaning go beyond simply fulfilling our need for transcendence? It is only logical that there should be a biological and evolutionary reason for the ideomotor effect being part of our instinctual behavior.
It is clear that belief in the supernatural is human nature, but whether we should strive to rid ourselves of the false hope associated with such beliefs, or follow our instincts and embrace our motivation to live life in order to achieve greater potentially nonexistent meaning remains ambiguous. Will rising above this instinctual search for meaning yield anything beneficial, or would it simply make us feel worse as we now have less perceived meaning? It seems that this constant search for fabricated meaning is the cardinal attribute to what defines us as humans and that there would most likely only negative consequences to ending this search.
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