Nathan Barrett

Jul 26, 2020

13 min read

The Layman

Imagine, for a moment, a series of images passing before your mind’s eye. This series, these images are of a long and complicated story. Considered in their own distinct and individual microcosms, these images constitute still further threads of narrative, in and of themselves. Just as the steady gathering of grains of sand will, at some indeterminate point, no longer fit the label of a mere accumulation of individual grains, but we must, instead, account for its ascent toward an ever-expanding consequence; here too, there is simply a point when it is clear that the story has begun, and, at which point, those once divergent threads of narrative will come to be seen as the story at hand.

At random, we may take core samplings from this panorama of images, first, from a time when the post-Hadean Earth harbored in its oceans the most primitive known unicellular organisms in the midst of violent and, since then, unparalleled geologic activity to the desolate jungles that presided over the evolutionary breakthrough of a mere appendage — of a thumb — to the intellectual revolutions brought on by the human prefrontal cortex. Now, as each of these threads is spliced seamlessly back together, they can be gauged anew from this unchanged but nonetheless updated vantage point as part of a larger, grander narrative. These images and, ultimately, their stories comprise a view of our genetic and cultural inheritance that amount to the story at hand, the story of us.

Most of these stories are tragic. In fact, all of them ultimately are. Although there is a series of these stories that are more tragic than others. These “more tragic” stories end with disease, starvation, exposure, predatory attacks, shear accidents, apparent bad luck, and, more recently, murder. None of the protagonists of these most tragic stories have survived long enough to currently have a representative of their specific story that is alive today. It is a painful world in these stories, and much of our extended family of human or near-human protagonists suffered difficult lives that were very short — near “dark to dark” it would seem.

Nonetheless, there are other stories that have passed alongside these narratives of tragedy. Though they may seem to be, taken individually, nothing more than “less tragic” in comparison to these latter. But when considered on the whole it can be seen that these merely “less tragic” stories are of seemingly remarkable success — or at least it feels that way to me — because this particular set of narratives are the narratives of my species that led to my civilization and my life and my science and these impressions of this world that I share with my present and these people here on our Earth.

It is a very important narrative, as we hold this picture of success up against the backdrop of tragedy and we see as fully as our imagination can comprehend each separate narrative thread reaching out over how many millennia to converge here, right here. It certainly feels like some kind of pinnacle. And, as far as the arrow of time is concerned, I suppose it probably is. Though it does not seem that the same impression was made on any other mote of dust aloft in the galaxy, as these nameless satellites reel in their own gyre about a star at the center of their world.

When I imagine this vast, evolving story and its series of fleeting images, I can see in these images that there is a sort of “sense” to them that resides there by merely having called the idea to my attention, that is to say that I called the story to mind, and I can see — in the space of as little as a phrase, embedded in and with these images — there is a kind of explanation or “sense” residing there, and so these images feel pregnant with “sense” or “sense making”, as opposed to “non-sense” or without sense, let’s say.

Much like the images previously called to mind, imagine, in addition, a more definitive face, say, perhaps that of an ape. Next imagine that the appendages and bodily structure take on a sort of fluid mobility that eventually ends at a non-descript depiction of a naked, mostly hairless human standing in a posture that is, for familiarity’s sake, somewhat like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

This metamorphoses is quite familiar in this day and age. It is on t-shirts and bumper stickers and on the covers of books and magazines and is often portrayed as a parody. By the mind’s eye, this metamorphoses happens in a flash, quite literally, as the words, “it just makes sense,” are leaving my mouth, and, to no small surprise, these images do feel quite pregnant with sense. The words themselves in this context have a relationship to the kind of immediacy I feel with the expression of an emotion; in fact, it nearly feels like an emotion, albeit that the words are wholly deficient, being that they have amounted to little more than a cliche, e.g. “it just makes sense” or “it’s science” …a sorry substitute for such a long and difficult story.

But, nonetheless, there is a kind of logic embedded in this metamorphoses. To be sure, there is a logic embedded in the metamorphoses of this symbol that may or may not have a concrete relationship to the physical world, depending on the whims of the aforementioned eye’s mind. Though it seems certain that it does because, like any symbol, it possesses a logical correlation to the living world because the symbol itself is pregnant with the historical meaning it has gained through the years, centuries or much longer in which it has been used.* (footnotes marked as [*])

The idea of a god is itself also a symbol that, as a whole, means something quite different today than it did 500 years ago because of the symbols use since then. While the Christian may find the light of eternal happiness in their idea of a god, as Christians have for tens of hundreds of years, it also carries with it, in all likelihood, a bit of resentment for the melodramatic disregard that some factions of atheists have for that very same idea of a god, as if they were somehow more human than human and not susceptible, in the least bit, to the phenomenon of faith. Much like the symbol of an ape is to the average atheist, the same can also be said of most Christians according to their impressions of a god or God, as they might prefer it. They, too, see a series of quickly fleeting images that pass before their mind’s eye that in a sense explain or rather articulate this sense making procedure of the idea of a god to them.

To most Christians, they need not articulate the embedded “logic” or understanding they see in the metamorphoses of those images, apparently, any more than most advocates of science need articulate the metamorphoses of their mental ape to other “like-minded” people, as oppose to a qualified scientist her or himself, because the sense making apparatus of the language is understood or, rather, is embedded in the subculture itself. But is this the same as saying that it is understood in an even vaguely similar way as might a scientist say of the evolution of an ape or a theologian might say of God?

In the vast majority of cases, no.

To be able to articulate an idea changes the nature of the idea itself. It’s as if to see a 3D model of the thing and be able hold it in your hand and examine its flaws and strengths.

In the mind, it has all the beauty and intangibility that an idea is capable of having when it is vaguely attached to the unconscious, which is itself utterly incomprehensible to the human consciousness. It feels as if to put words on it might even diminish it. Such incomprehensible beauty and awe and intangibility is all to easily applied to that which we do not understand and is maintained only in the abstract because that is where it is most easy for such onesidedness to be maintained: in the mind and away for the staring eyes of the world and, likewise, from your own self-consciousness — and thus we remain less conscious of ourselves.

There is a parallel here that I’ve noticed not only in myself but many people, if not most of the people I know, with how we think about science and how we think about religion. That being that we articulate our understanding of both in the form of faith, and, in that sense, mere agreement among our like-minded peers is enough to have brought a discussion to its “sensical” conclusion, as opposed to perhaps a logical one.

To exemplify the point with an analogy, what the layman is to the scientist is, in a practical sense, what a layman is to the theologian. We see the results of these systems of thought, we read articles that mention the work of expert researchers, we champion their accomplishments, we claim them as our own in much the same way the layman would claim, for instance, Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways for the existence of God, or he or she may claim Richard Dawkin’s The Self Gene, depending on where their preference lies. What’s more is that there is nothing of any greater or lesser imprecision in reasoning in Aquinas’s Five Ways than there is in any one of Dawkins’s books.

And, to the astonishment of many atheists, there are cold, hard, logical explanations in religious thought with no less definitive clarity than in much of what can be said about science. Though I would argue, in regards to the difference between science and religion, that the purpose garners different results and that what was once of greater utility is displaced according to certain progress and change over time. This is kind of like saying that the world is not static and application of a way of thinking that does not definitively account for change is bound to eventually fall victim to that internal flaw.** The institutions of science possess an inherent appreciation for change that many religious institutions do not.

The definitive difference is not in the logic but in the results, and feeling that something makes sense is not the same as showing yourself, first, what makes sense about it. These symbols hold in them an emotional weight to the layman that is often not examined but instead held as being facts. It is true that symbols become facts in how they direct our lives but they are not simply facts in and of themselves.

By not articulating exactly what it is about a particular story or image that conjures that feeling of sense making to one’s self beyond simply saying “it just makes sense” when speaking of evolution, for instance, we are very likely relying on faith in much the same way that a Christian may be relying on that all-to-distant world of logic and reason related by theologians like Thomas Aquinas to develop ways of understanding their own dogmatic systems of thought.

The mere passing of images by your mind’s eye has an emotional weight and do, in fact, possess an embedded sense making apparatus in them, but it is impossible to tell what that might actually amount to without taking the time to make it known to yourself — that is if one were not mistaken about something of crucial importance, which would be difficult to determine had you never taken the opportunity to literally make sense of these emotionally weighted images to begin with. Like the great and powerful Flannery O’Connor has said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

This too holds true when we are setting about making our opinions known in any given discussion. Nothing just makes sense by the sheer weight of having said it is so any more than the mere feeling of being justified would imply a thing is justified. Many a heretic has been burned at the stake for the mere feeling of being justified, whether that be the heretics willingness to be burned at the stake in the first place, or the judgment of justice inflicted on that heretic. ***

Perhaps it is by nothing more than the shear accident of congruent facts of history and culture that any one of us happen to believe in science at all as opposed to something else, or literally anything else for that matter. It is unlikely that either you or I would have “volunteered” our opinions to science so unquestioningly had we been born only a few generations before. Which is strange that we often find it so easy to point out the geographic correlation between certain belief systems and the people who share them, as if we were not also subject to the same exact criticism in regard to our faith in science.

The symbolic depth of your internal life may feel overwhelmingly profound when you experience this sense making procedure, but, nonetheless, the sense making procedure of your mind feels no less profound to you when thinking of the validity of science than it does for the Christian thinking of the validity of their God, and, what’s more, none of us are any nearer to the scientist than the average Christian is to the theologian.

We are all witnessing a symbolic sun revolving around our own, personal, symbolic Earth where our ideas are always supported by the greatest plausible reasons. But until those reasons are literally found and actually articulated, we are each operating on a foundation of faith, and it is unlikely, as it seems to me, that we will ever rid ourselves of the thing, particularly if we do not endeavor to ground our impressions of the world in what can be held and examined, in what is concrete.**** We must, in fact, say what it is about our ideas that give them that profound sense of depth we feel when saying they just make sense.

There are many more things that are not important to who we are than we have yet been willing to admit to ourselves, and we are not doing ourselves any favors by not letting them go. The importance we as individuals attach to this larger, grander narrative and ourselves cannot be constructed out of the belief that we are already important but, instead, out of the life we construct from the accidental facts of our lives*****. The import of our lives comes as a result of what our actions actually amount to because we will, nonetheless, act regardless of what our actions amounts to in the end. We do not simply get to be important to the larger world by merely having been born. Nor do we have to be necessarily. Such a realization ought not diminish our sacrosanct relationship to ourselves in this grand narrative. We may choose to step closer to the pinnacle or we may not. The choice is of defining importance, though neither choice diminishes the reality of our existence nor the importance we have to the breadth and depth of our own microcosm of stories. Some of those microcosms of our own personal stories will amount to a much larger accumulation of converging story threads over time and others will sustain themselves on a much more modest accumulation. But there is nevertheless much to be acted upon, including how faith, belief, and dogma preside over all of our lives.

In the soup of language we are like fish in a pond no more capable of comprehending the array of complexities we are embedded in than the fish is at comprehending the water of its pond. We are in it and there are fleeting glimpses of its complexity that may only point at a depth of understanding that we will never truly see as that depth of understanding diminishes back into the obscurity of the unconscious abyss of that which we can never know. But we should try, at all costs, to let go of what is not important in favor of what is and very often that means striving merely to be less wrong as opposed justifying what we want to be right.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

*On a side note, this may also be why the word “blanket”, for instance, would have a totally dead meaning in this context if I were to substitute it with the aforementioned image of an ape. There is almost no historical meaning that is relevant to our discussion here that is so pregnant as the image of an ape in conjunction with that of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

**Perhaps had the church accounted for the fact that people were eventually going to get tired of being burned at the stake, and other things that now seem very obvious, it might have prevented its eventual failing in popularity, and science and religion might not have wound up being thought of as so at odds with one another. Though its easy to casually make criticisms in retrospect. Clearly it did not happen in some other way and it is unclear what could have happened otherwise …since nothing else did happen but what did. And no, I am not running in circles here to be purposefully facetious. With 7.5 billion people currently on the planet and hundreds of millions of years of experimental testing in evolution as a foundation, it seems very reasonable to say that if there were sufficient reason for something else to happen, it would, but the only thing that would — or, perhaps, could — happen is what did. Undermining a thing’s validity because we don’t like certain aspects of it is a denial of the facts as they lay. That’s not to say that there haven’t been serious flaws and that we can’t do better because we should, but what should be done should be in acceptance of the facts and in accordance with the utility of that accumulated knowledge. With the world population continuing to skyrocket and people living closer and closer together, it’s a miracle there aren’t more problems, considering the nature of our past and what that says about who we are. There is clearly some power of organization at play here keeping us from clawing at each others throats. To think the organizing power of religion hadn’t played a very very significant role in that — and isn’t now — is silly, even if you, by some miracle of imagination, do not believe yourself also subject to it and the faculty of faith. Though I refer to an “organizing power” here, I don’t mean to imply that this “power” is of a supernatural nature, but that there is an organizational power within religion and it is not entirely obvious what that is. Perhaps it is nothing more than that of morals and punishment, though I doubt that it is that simplistic.

***Though it is arguable that there have also been many a heretic that have been burned at the stake for what were assumed to be logical reasons as well — such are the consequences of progress under an monocultralstic impression of righteousness.

***Given the impressions people draw from things they do not understand, it does not seem obvious that we will ever be rid of it anyways, particularly considering the nature of the unconscious and what advances in neural nets in artificial intelligence indicate to me, but that is another discussion entirely.

***** The idea of the “accidental facts of one’s life” I’m fairly certain I originally encountered in William Barrett's book Irrational Man in the section concerning Jean-Paul Sartre.