The Importance of Pedigree

Consider the following thought experiment:

Suppose there is an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s experience?

This, obviously, is a rhetorical question. And I would assume that for most people answer is a curt “No”. We think that actually playing a game is somehow superior to a mere (stimulated) experience of playing a game; even if the brain attached to electrodes can’t tell the difference. Doing something is better than the experience of doing. We just don’t want to experience things, we want to do thing and be someone.

Here’s another scenario: Person A mistakenly believes that his favorite team won the game last night, and person B correctly believes that his favorite team won. [Assume that there are no consequences of the mistaken belief.] Even if there is no difference in their subjective degrees of happiness, if you had to choose between the two, you would choose to be person B. In terms of well-being of a person, the illusion-based happiness is perceived inferior to the fact-based happiness. You don’t want to rejoice for your home-team just for the sake of being happy. You want your home-team to have actually won as well. Otherwise, it’s just not the same. (Again, even if there’s no subjective difference in what we feel from the inside.)

“Happiness, at least if it is understood to correspond to well-being, turns out not to be all in the head”, writes Leo Katz in his intriguing book Ill-gotten Gains: Evasion, Blackmail, Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law, from which these scenarios are taken. He quotes an Oxford philosopher to elaborate more on this:

I prefer, in important matters of my life, bitter truth to comfortable illusion. Even if I were surrounded by consummate actors able to give me sweet simulacra of love and affection, I should prefer the relatively bitter diet of their authentic reactions. And I should prefer it not because it would be morally better, or more noble, but because it would make for a better life for me to live.

… because it would make for a better life for me to live. Touché!

The pedigree of experience matters – that’s the lesson from these thought experiments. But alas, when it comes to the belief in God, the majority of us seem to prefer the comfortable illusion — there’s an after-life, God is watching and helping us etc. — to the bitter truth that there’s no God, and we are on our own.


14 responses to “The Importance of Pedigree

  1. Again, a thought-provoking article from you! Really a good one; keep reading, and sharing!

    People really take the easy way out when it comes to god. Believing god and leaving everything else to him is an easier thing as compared to caring nothing about his existence and take responsibility of everything what we do. And in their case, they chose to be in the illusion, because they chose it for life-long, not for a single night! It makes them feel comfortable!

    In a blogpost ‘Why I am an atheist?’ some Haseeb Asif (a Pakistani guy who writes good satire at writes, “I wont mind if people use these crutches, but what if they raise the crutches and bang them in our head?”

  2. I would say that the importance of a “true” experience lies in the fact that it is part of the greater fabric of absolute reality.

    Taking your example of the sport fans, unless A needs to act upon information derived from his false impression (e.g. collecting sporting bet winnings) his joy will be indistinguishable from B’s experience.

    • Yes, person A’s joy/happiness will be indistinguishable from that of B’s – but the question is: if you had to choose one, which one would you prefer?

      I would prefer to be person B who correctly believes that his home-team won. To be honest, I would even prefer to trade some/most of my happiness to know what actually happened – even if that means that I would find out that my home-team did not win the game.

  3. Jigar Doshi

    The illusion of person B about the winning of his favorite team does not mean the sports is at fault. It is Person B who is at fault. Similarly, the illusion of a religious person does not mean that religion is at fault. As a matter of fact illusion is very well recognized and imbibed in religious text as ‘maya’. we all live in maya upto a certain extend. The degree may vary but we all live in maya. Religion in not about believing in ‘life after death’ and ‘God is watching’ theories but it is about doing Karma with perfect detachment from the fruits of labor. Just because someone believes in the idea of God does not make him a religious person.

    • JD,

      >> Religion in not about believing in ‘life after death’ and ‘God is watching’ theories […]

      I don’t see anything in my post that implies that ‘belief in God’ is a sufficient (or even necessary) condition for ‘being religious’.

      However, I would say that religion – as it is commonly understood and defined – does include a belief in God (or gods, or deities, or some sort of supernatural power). Yes, there are exceptions (like some forms of Buddhism, and some archaic branches of Hinduism etc.) but in general being religious means “the service and worship of God or the supernatural”.

      Now you are free to define religion in different ways – like your definition above (which is more like ‘conscientiousness’) – and defend that form of religion. But then you would be defending that form of religion, not what religion actually is (as commonly observed, experienced and practiced).

      • Jigar Doshi

        What according to you is religion?

        • That’s a loaded question! Scholars have long debated and discussed how difficult defining religion is. Not an easy task. There are just too many different aspects of religion… Sometimes ‘religion’ is used interchangeably with ‘faith’ and ‘belief system’. Some religions put emphasis on practice, while other on belief. Sometimes its difficult (or even impossible) to tease out a religious belief/practice from a cultural one. Depending on your cultural background, religion may be totally contained within the personal domain, or it may have a public aspect. Some have even argued that religion does not exist in an empirical sense – rather, it is solely the creation of scholar’s study (this particular view doesn’t differentiate between culture and religion).

          To me, the plethora of conflicting definitions suggests one thing: that something as multifaceted and as diverse as religion can not be defined in one sentence ( as in “[I]t is about doing Karma with perfect detachment from the fruits of labor”.)

          So while we shall leave the arduous task of coming up with a definition of religion to the scholars, if we were to carry any meaningful dialogue about religion, we have to come up with a working definition of religion. That working definition shall focus on the common components of religious practices across different cultures (rather than focusing on the outliers – like Cārvāka, for instance). The emphasis on common aspects (generality) is important because otherwise the discussion (about religion) will be hindered by compartmentalizing religion to a particular sect, sub-continent, country or culture.

          In my opinion, here are some of those common aspects of religion: belief in a supernatural power/entity, rituals and prayers focused on the supernatural entity, moral code of conduct (“dharma”) derived from scriptures/holy book/holy saints.

          Again, these are not sufficient conditions for religion. Just because someone believes in God doesn’t make him a religious person. But generally, these are necessary conditions.

          PS: Here’s Daniel Dennett’s (a philosopher, whose books I’ve greatly enjoyed) working definition of religion: “A social system whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent (or agents) whose approval is to be sought.” He notes that this definition is “a place to start, not something carved in stone.”

          • Jigar Doshi

            Did u get the chance to read Swami Vivekananda’s book ‘What is religion’?
            I personally never try to define religion as it is impossible to define something which is so dynamic. My comment on Karma was to suggest that religion do not preach to shy away from responsibilities and leave everything to the lord. It asks us to do Karma with perfect detachment from the fruits of labor.

            • Jigar Doshi

              Here is the link
              if u r interested in reading the book.

              • I just ordered it from Amazon. I remember that you’ve recommended this book to me several months ago, and I am reproducing my reply that I gave you back then:

                I will give it a shot, but I am highly skeptical if that’s going to change my attitude towards religious dogma in any way.

                Just a quick note about revisionist/reformist views of religion in general: If only these nuanced, sophisticated and intellectually cohesive religions (like the one Vivekananda envisioned) predominated the world, we would be surely living in a much different and better place, and my issues with religions would perhaps be minimal or non-existent. But unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. To the majority of the people religion means very different things than what these rose-tinted revisionist/reformist religions envisioned.

                My comments about religion are not directed towards these numerically negligible minority views of religion. They are directed towards religion as it is understood and followed by the majority.

                • Jigar Doshi

                  If someone has a strong quest to acquire true knowledge then why should he/she be worried about what majority of the other people do. Let there be only one guru/sage/reformist/revisionist in the whole world who has realized true knowledge, and if you find him, follow him with all your might. Religion is not about changing others but it is about changing oneself. It is about coming face to face with your true nature. It is not about knowing but realizing God within. Religion in one sentence, according to me, is about realizing God within.

                  In the words of Swami Vivekananda, “He is an atheist who does not believe in himself. The old religions said that he was an atheist who did not believe in God. The new religion says that he is an atheist who does not believe in himself.”

                  Also, what moral authority do we have to find faults in others. For an old experienced man, childhood or adulthood should not be a crime. It is just a natural process of development. Again quoting Swami Vivekananda, “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

                  • >> If someone has a strong quest to acquire true knowledge then why should he/she be worried about what majority of the other people do.

                    Because they won’t let me mind my own business!

                    Every time I open the newspaper there’s another instance of theocratic encroachment on free society (paraphrasing Hitchens) — tomorrow when my kid goes to school I am worried that the Creationism crap is going to be forced down his throat (as a competing theory against Darwin’s evolution theory!) — I see the shadows of religious fundamentalism every time I fly and go through the air-port security — I see how influential religious lobbyists are today in the legislature/law-making process in India as well as in the US…. etc. etc. etc.

                    They just won’t let me!

                    I firmly believe in individual liberty and freedom of association. People are free to believe in whatever tickles their fancy — as long as they keep it to themselves. When their religious (or otherwise) practices and beliefs start interfering with my daily life –and the planet’s future, for that matter — then we got a problem.


                    You believe that “religion is not about changing others but it is about changing oneself.”

                    That’s just great, and very noble. Totally fine with me. But unfortunately, the world is not filled with Jigar Doshi’s who believe that religion belongs to the personal (not public) sphere.

                    And therein lies the rub, my friend.


                    >> Also, what moral authority do we have to find faults in others?

                    I wouldn’t claim to have a moral authority over religious believers. But since we live in a world where theocracy seems to substantially influence policies, laws, public discourse, and many other things – I think it’s our moral imperative to question the foundations of such non-secular, religious, superstitious, and dogmatic beliefs. If they are so cocksure about their beliefs, why shy away from a healthy discussion?

                    I don’t have any issues with what religion means to you (i.e. Jigar Doshi). I have issues with what religion means to the majority of this world – and what its implications are to me, and to the world I live in.

  4. Jigar Doshi

    I will also try and express what religion is according to me. I just need some time out of my current life and sit peacefully to assimilate my thoughts about it.

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